Gaming and Games

Gaming and Peon

Peon, Ipai homár or xomár, Kamia pyon ( a gloss of Spanish peon) has been found among 80 tribes and 28 different linguistic stocks (Williams :58) making it one the most played games in what is now the United States.   It has been widely documented that for most tribes, peon is seen as far more than a game or a type of recreation.  Because peon is typically played between villages (inter-village) the game carries a weight of rivalry and pride that goes well beyond the success or failure of the individual players.

Writing one hundred years ago, Dubois (1908b: 167 suggested that for the Kumeyaay, peon held an almost religious value and indeed as discussed below, peon has mythical roots.  Dubois (1908b: 168) noted that “Gambling with the Indians satisfied that instinct for recreation and excitement which in civilized man finds expression in the countless amusements good and bad which he devises for his leisure hours.  Peon is thrilling even to the bystander; but all is managed with the precision of self restraint which is inherent from the primitive days, when every act was in some sense a religious ceremony.”  She also suggested that ideally a shaman (Kuseyaay) would lead each side and that his powers were important forces in the outcome of the game.  The peon pieces could be either bone or sticks and were white and black.

Gaming Pieces and Objects

The archaeological record indicates that games and playing pieces have been used for thousands of years.  Some of the items recovered in archaeological excavations have uncertain functions and do not have apparent parallels in recorded or contemporary games.  Examples of gaming objects in the archaeological record include dice, large and small ceramic disc counters, and spherical stone objects. Perishable items such as bone peon pieces, counting sticks, leather thongs, and bone or shell dice are rarely found in an archaeological contest.

In the ethnographic record gaming objects are well documented including peon pieces, peon Phoebe Hearst Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Southwest Museum.

peon-counting-sticks

PEON COUNTING STICKS (EseLkwak)

Counting sticks, thongs for the peon pieces, dice, hoops, throwing sticks, counters, and spherical objects.  Several of these objects are included in collections at San Diego State University, the San Diego Archaeological Center, the Museum of Man, the Museum of the American Indian.

It is interesting to note that for Kumeyaay the colors black and white are identified with the west and the east respectively (Waterman :40 citing Dubois) perhaps reflecting more than a simple binary contrast for dice and gaming pieces.  According to Gifford (131: 47) the Kamia guessed for the black peon pieces while the Kumeyaay guessed for the white, which is most common (Hohenthal 20__: 216).  It is possible that Gifford misunderstood and that the Kamia, in fact also guessed for the white pieces.  For the Kumeyaay, the peon pieces might be fashioned from coyote or rabbit bone while the Kamia preferred tarsi, pelican leg bones (Gifford 1931: 46).  For the Tipai, the peon gaming pieces are called nyumumarpai, word that include the word for people, pai and the name for peon itself, xomár/homár (Waterman 190_: 330).

Other elements of material culture reflective of gaming include the counters (15 of them) used to track wins and losses in peon.  In southern California, the counters were fashioned from arrow weed sticks (Gifford 1931: 46).  For the Tipai, these counters were called eseLkwak (Waterman 190_: 330).  To aid in the stealthy hand movements, blankets served as screens for many of the tribes, at least in the modern period.

Special magic and good luck could be evoked for the Kamia by rubbing the powder of the chuchupate plant on a players face and breast and also sprinkling some powder on the fire (Waterman 19__: 332.  By contrast Kamia opponents could be poisoned by throwing powder rattlesnakes or black spiders on the fire.

Gaming and Songs

The extent to which gaming is fully integrated with traditional Ipai culture is reflected in the number of songs that are song in ceremonies and while gaming.  Dubois (1908a: 230) noted at least six songs that told of games and gaming including the pole and hoop game, the stick game, and the bow and arrow game.  The wagers recited in the songs include material goods, hair, and in one case the very heart of a young gambler who loses his heart and his life to a skillful elder who then dances around the dead loser.  One important gambling song sung in Diegueño by a Luiseño (Salvador Cuervas who apparently did not know exactly what the words meant) is the song sung by Cuyahomarr as he willed his uncle to win against strangers (Dubois 1908b: 127).  The stakes were high for Cuyahomarr, the loss of one more counter and the strangers, who turn out to be coyotes, win Cuyahomarr and fully intend to eat him.

The peon songs could be song by knowledgeable singers including men and women.  The length and intensity of the songs would reflect the success or apparent failure of the singers’ team.  Some songs were clearly derisive with the skill, manhood, or intelligence of the opposing players seriously called into doubt.  Ralph Michelsen, who wrote the definitive study of peon, reported that it was particularly disruptive for an opposing team’s singers to sing a song of the other teams—therefore stealing some of their power or special knowledge.

For the Kamia neighbors to the west, the Kumeyaay, Dubois (1908b: 168) observed that “Gambling with the Indians satisfied that instinct for recreation and excitement which in civilized man finds expression in the countless amusements good and bad which he devises for his leisure hours.  Peon is thrilling even to the bystander; but all is managed with the precision of self restraint which is inherent from the primitive days, when every act was in some sense a religious ceremony.”  She also suggested that ideally a shaman (kuseyaay) would lead each side and that his powers were important forces in the outcome of the game.  The peon pieces could be either bone or sticks and were white and black.

Gaming and Gambling in Myth

As one element of the powerful Ipai/Tipai/story of Chaup, as told at Mesa Grande, a group of villagers went to play peon at another village and were beaten (Dubois 1904: 239).  The hero of the story, Cuyahomarr, tells his grandfather that he will go to the other village and beat the winners.  In spite of his grandfather’s warnings that the villagers will kill him, Cuyahomarr travels to the strangers’ village and not only won at peon, in retribution, he burned their fields and homes.  In a version of the same story from the Manzanita Reservation  the gaming sequence is much longer and more detailed and includes the fact that the First People gamblers were coyotes before they became humans.  In the extended version the wonder boy Cuyahomarr helps his uncle win at a game of hoops and sticks not peon through magic (Dubois 1906: 157-1580.  In this story Cuyahomarr wins all of the strangers’ belongings including their corn, their metates, and their manos.