Issue 19 Chance Fall 2005

Bet the House

Javid Soriano

"We have known Indians to lose everything—horse, dogs, cooking utensils, lodge, wife, even his wearing apparel..." This description, from a 1850s report by fur trader-turned-amateur ethnologist Edwin T. Denig to governor Isaac I. Stevens of the Washington territory, refers to a game called Cossoo, played by the Assinoboine tribe of Montana. The contest, which Denig calls the "principal game played by men," involved two opponents (usually soldiers) wagering increasing amounts of their possessions, beginning with minor personal objects and culminating with their homes and wives. The opponents alternately shake a bowl containing six types of "dice"—ranging from small stones and buttons to bits of china and crow's claws—of various values until one has reached 100 points. The winner then takes all the wagered objects and the loser must bet an object or objects equal in value to the total of the opponent's previous winnings. Obligated to match the other's amassment of goods again and again—with the exception being when one player's gun is next to be bet, at which point he is allowed to withdraw without losing his honor—the players, notes Denig, square off "for up to two or three days... without any intermission, except to eat, until one of the parties is completely ruined."

Native American game drawing by Edwin T. Denig, in the papers of Frank Hamilton Cushing. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Archives. Culin Archival Collection. Games [7.1.001]: North American Indian games corresp. A-G, 1896-1906

Javid Soriano is a student at New York University and an editorial assistant at Cabinet.

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