The History of Native Americans and Gambling

Historians who have studied the roots of gaming and gambling say that it is difficult to determine which came first. Yet, it is clear that gaming and gambling –although gaming is the collective term for the two today—have long been a tradition in Native American culture.

A Brief History

Gaming is more to Native American culture than meets the eye. It is not simply about cutting losses or racking up winnings. Although modern Indian gaming does provide necessary economic funding and helps to benefit the economy of many Native American tribes, the roots of gaming in Native American culture are much more complex. Gaming was a spiritual pastime for those who took part in it during the years before Europeans arrived in America and after, as Europeans gradually tried to take away many of the Native American’s gaming traditions.

To Native Americans playing primitive games was not about gambling for winnings, necessarily. Instead, they believed that the same force that controlled the rather consistent outcome of many popular games also controlled the weather, famine, fertility, and the celestial bodies. The negative moral stigma associated with gambling did not emerge in the Native American culture but rather in the Roman culture. As Romans bet their wages, wives, children, and homes at the tables, legislators were prompted to pass antigambling laws and frowned upon gambling as a whole.

Native Americans, though, played games to come into harmony with their universe. They played games ceremonially and at certain times of the year to please the gods. They also played for every reason from securing fertility and causing rain, to prolonging life, expelling demons, and curing sickness. To the Native Americans, gambling represented the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It also symbolized the rebirth of their tribes and the potential rebirth into a life without Europeans.

As Europeans began to encroach on certain Native American traditions, the Native Americans were forced to change how they participated in those traditions. The ghost dance, for example, performed by some tribes, became a game instead of a ceremony. Gaming has quite a different meaning in the lives of Native Americans than in those of Europeans.