Early explorers encounter Native Americans near The Dalles whom they describe as “great gamblers.” The games, says Wilson Wewa, senior citizens representative with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, included flat, carved bone sticks notched with lines and dots that were tossed in a basket like dice; all manner of athletics, from races to a version of lacrosse; the still-much played “stick game”; and, later, after the 52-card deck arrived with more settlers, a three-card game called Geegeewy. Some games lasted for days. Wagers could include anything from shells and smoked meats to slaves.

First Gamers

Arguably as important as sweat lodges and powwows, hand game (also called “bone game” or “stick game”) was and still is a cornerstone of Native American culture in the West, according to Jackie Peterson, a professor emerita at Washington State University-Vancouver. To play, two teams pile their bets (anything from food and blankets to weapons and cash) and sit facing each other. Each side has two pairs of bones, one marked with a black stripe, one unmarked. After hiding the bones beneath a blanket, one team presents them in closed fists to the other, whose pointer tries to signal which hand holds the unmarked bones. Bluffing, feinting, and frenzied guessing mingle with singing and chanting for a cacophonous roar. Single games often turn into all-night parties.

Gambling though it is, hand game at its core is more about wealth redistribution. In fact, when a missionary visited the Klallam tribe near Puget Sound in 1859, he was horrified to learn that generosity, not greed, drove the players. “The Indian who was worth hundreds in the morning thus beggars himself before night,” he wrote; the person who gives up the most “being considered the greatest man.” Indeed, an Indian origin story tells that when animals finally got tired of humans shedding blood over hunting lands, they invented hand game for them. The winner, the animals declared, could use the other tribe’s territory to hunt for the year. The game greased diplomatic wheels, eased tensions, and placated calls for violence.

Rusty Farmer, president of the hand game tournament Battle of the Nations—which can draw more than 7,000 people—says the pursuit still brings Native Americans together all over North America. “When you have reservations where 85 percent of the people are under the poverty line and 83 percent [are] unemployed, this game can be an amazing spiritual force.” —MP


Illegal gambling rears its head in Stumptown. Upon the election of its third mayor, Simon B. Marye, the Oregonian describes Portland as being “infested with several professed blacklegs … swindling persons who can be induced to risk money upon the turn of a card.” The paper suggests that a few days “in the block house [jail] on bread and water would … purge our city from these bejeweled worthless.”


The Portland Municipal Association’s membership forms, eventually swelling to more than 2,000—all committed to eliminating the scourge of open gambling and slot machines.


Only months before the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition is to pack Portland with 1.6 million eager visitors, a grand jury indicts Mayor George H. Williams for not cracking down on gambling. Reformers worry that gambling houses are not “the best advertisement in the world for exposition visitors,” according to the Portland Telegram.


Lambasting Portland’s government for having “practically licensed gambling and prostitution,” McClure’s Magazine calls the city a “popular headquarters for all the vicious characters in the Pacific Northwest.”


Governor Oswald West finally cracks the whip on local police enforcement of anti-drinking and gambling ordinances, drawing the ire of former Multnomah County Sheriff William A. Storey, who runs a recall campaign against him. Storey assures voters that no vice interests are behind the recall effort. Skeptics abound.