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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


A number of games were played seated, either outdoors or indoors. These were guessing games and dice games, and were always the basis of wagers.

Hand game or grass game. As played by men this game, called a’lle (P), hī'nuwa or hī'nuwo (N), hīno'wū (C), and hinawu (S), required two pairs of hones, each bone being about the size of a man’s first finger. One of each pair was grooved and snugly wrapped, usually about its middle, with blackened string or sinew, and was called usu'u (P); o'ssa (N), “woman;” tiyauni (S). The unwrapped bone was called sa'uwe (P), and na'a (N, S), “man.” The pair, a wrapped and an unwrapped bone, was called ha'na (P, N, C), and pa'tu (C). Such ones are shown in plate LVII, figs. 9-14, and plate LXXI, figs. 1 and 2. Culin figures three sets from the Central Miwok.112 Two of these sets are of tubular bones filled with slender twigs. In the set numbered 70216 (Field Museum), Culin’s figure 383, the two with buckskin winding also have this material passing inside the tube. 70216-3 is 95 mm. long.

In playing, these bones were hidden in bunches of green grass or pine needles, and the opposite side must guess in which hand the unmarked bone113 was concealed. Ten counters (k'tca, P, N; hī’llo, C; huhu, S) were used, which were small sticks, eight to twelve inches long. Culin describes a Central Miwok set of ten sticks (Field Museum 70232) of peeled wild cherry (Prunus demissa) sharpened at one end, and fifteen inches in length.114 There were two men on each side who hid the bones, though anyone was privileged to bet on the game. A pair of the bones was used by each of the two players on the side whose turn it was to hide the bones. They hid the bones in bunches of grass or pine needles, rolling these around in time to their gambling song (hi'nūwo, C), which was supposed to bring them good luck and confuse their opponents. When ready for the guessing by the opponents, this pair of players held their closed hands in front of their chests and revolved one about the other, in time to their song, until the guess was made. If the guess was incorrect the holders retained the bones for another round and received as many counters as there were points lost by the guessers’ side. If both were guessed right the guessers received two counters and had the next play. If only one was guessed right the guessers received one counter and the player incorrectly guessed had another play.

At the outset the ten counters were held by a tally keeper or stake holder, who received a small percentage of the stakes for his services and who was the only person not privileged to bet on the game. During the first stages of the game he distributed the counters as won, until all ten were gone. Thereafter the counters were passed directly from side to side, until one side had all ten and the game was finished.

The several possibilities in this guessing are indicated in the following table, in which X indicates the marked and O the unmarked bones, R the right hands and L the left hands of a pair of players:

R     L     R     L
X     O     X     O
X     O     O     X
O     X     O     X
O     X     X     O
OX     OX
    OX         OX
OX             OX
    OX     OX

The women’s hand game (welē'yup, hinwo, C) was played by four women, two on each side. Each pair of bones was called a “man” (unmarked bone) and a “woman” (marked bone), the latter being sought. The bones were of deer leg bone usually, though mountain lion leg bone was preferred. Culin figures a set made of split mountain lion femur.115 Twelve stick counters were placed in the middle of the game area at the start. These were paid out by the male umpire (hilukbe, C). When these had been distributed between the two sides, the game continued until one side had won all the counters. Both players who had the bones participated in the hiding, while one person in the opposing pair guessed their location, often after consulting her partner. In shuffling the bones the women’s hands were hidden under a piece of buckskin or behind their heads. Then the arms were folded so that each hand was hidden in an armpit. If the location of both marked bones was guessed, two counters passed to the guesser’s side. If only one was guessed, one counter was passed to the guesser’s side. If two were correctly guessed, the winners had the next play. If only one was guessed, the one missed played again. If she were afraid that she might be correctly guessed, she might pass the play to her partner. It did not matter which of the opposing pair guessed. Singing of the contestants continually accompanied the playing.

Informants stated that hand-game songs were different from songs generally in use among the Miwok, and that they came from the tribes living to the west, particularly about San Jose.

Stick game. This game (o'lūtca, C) was played by men only and with forty-four small sticks. One player held the bunch of sticks in his left hand and suddenly separated a bunch of them in his right. He placed this hand behind his back and his opponent guessed one, two, three, or four. The sticks were then counted in fours and any remainder noted. If the remainder was the figure named by the guesser, he received the bundle of sticks: if not, he lost his bet. The terms used in guessing were: ken, one; os, two; tule'k, three; to, four (C). It is to be noted that these are not the full names of the numerals.

Another form of this game (y'tto, P, N) was played by the Plains and Northern Miwok. Ten wormwood rods, each eight to ten inches in length, were held by each of the two players in his left hand. The one sang his gambling song and suddenly separated a number of sticks in his right hand. His opponent must then guess whether this was an odd number (telē'ka, P, N) or an even number. If the guess was correct the guessing changed sides; if not, the guesser gave his opponent one of the ten counters (k'ttca, P, N), used in keeping the tally. Virtually the same game, called olatcu' (C) was played by Central Miwok men with eight sticks, each a foot long and about the diameter of a lead pencil.

Dice game. A dice game (hele’lla, P, N; ha'hu, N; tca'ta, tcata'tu, or hahumetitci, C) was played with halves of acorn meats (plate LXX, figs. 7, 8), half walnuts (plate LXXI, figs. 4, 5), or half cylinders of wood, chiefly by women. The half acorns were not colored, but the wooden dice, an inch and a half or two inches in length, were darkened on the rounded surface. Four (sometimes six or eight) dice were shaken in the cupped hands and released suddenly, often with a slight swinging motion, being dropped on a mat or upon a flat, coiled basketry tray (hetalu, C). A tray in the Field Museum (70221) is 510 mm. in diameter and is from Groveland. It has a zigzag design.

Either two or four persons played this game. Eight, ten, or twelve counters (hī'lo, C) were used in tallying. At the start of the game the counters were placed centrally between the players. The game was won when all counters were in possession of either side. They then appropriated the valuables which had been staked by their opponents. The scores counted as follows: if all flat or all rounded sides turned up, two points; if an equal number of flat and rounded sides, one point. Any other combination counted nothing. Woman versus woman or man versus woman, but never man versus man was the rule.

Culin116 reports this game, with six dice, among the Southern Miwok (the Awani, near Cold Springs, Mariposa county), under the name “teatacu.” He figures a basket plaque, nearly twenty-four inches in diameter (figure 162) used for this game.

Northern Miwok specimen 1-10035 comprises four acorn dice, the only form originally used with a flat basket tray.

Game of staves. The game of staves, mū'ltūya (C), was played by women. Six staves about eight inches in length and semi-circular in cross-section were cast upon a piece of matting or deer skin. The score was counted as with the dice. If all fell with the rounded side up or all with the flat side up, two points were scored. If they were evenly divided one point was scored. Any other combination did not count. Ten counters (hī'lo, C) were used as in the dice game. This was a gambling game, but was sometimes played without bets.

112Figs. 383-385.
113According to two Central Miwok informants, it was always the marked bone that was sought by both men and women players. Probably the custom varied. In fact, another Central Miwok informant called the marked stick “man”, the unmarked “woman”, and said it was the “woman” which was sought.
114Culin, 295.
115Fig. 385.


Figure 1. Acorn buzzer, Spec. No. 1-2267.

Figure 2. Acorn buzzer, Spec. No. 1-10600.

Figure 3. Acorn buzzer. Spec. No. 1-10137 (C).

Figure 4. Acorn top. Spec. No. 1-10139 (C).

Figure 5. Acorn top. Spec. No. 1-10035 (N).

Figure 6. Acorn top. Spec. No. 1-10135 (C).

Figure 7. Acorn dice. Spec. No. 1-10603.

Figure 8. Acorn dice. Spec. No. 1-10602.

Neg. No. 4807.

(Figures 1 and 2 are, respectively, Sinkyone and Pomo, included for comparison. Figures 7 and 8 are Pomo, but represent the Miwok equally well.)

1-3. Acorn buzzer. 4-6. Acorn top. 7-8. Acorn dice.
[click to enlarge]


Figure 1. Gambling bones. Spec. No. 1-10056 (N).

Figure 2. Gambling bones. Spec. No. 1-9918 (N).

Figure 3. Gambling bones. Spec. No. 1-4046.

Figure 4. Gambling dice. Spec. No. 1-10971.

Figure 5. Gambling dice. Spec. No. 1-14021.

Neg. No. 4803.

(Figure 3 is Yokuts, included for comparison. Figures 4 and 5 are, respectively, Chemcluevi and Yokuts and are shown in lieu of Miwok walnut dice.)

1-3. Gambling bones. 4-5. Gambling dice.
[click to enlarge]

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management