Games of chance seem to be not a small part of North American life since the times immemorial. Even the deities were reported to engage in betting, while contesting for power and influence over the ‘Turtle Island’ (our world) and those who populated it, the people of their creation. In this Iroquois seem to be no different from their neighbors, other dwellers of the Eastern Woodlands.
When the world was young and only barely created, the Divine Twins, the grandchildren of the Sky Woman, the first people to populate the Turtle Island, were engaged in a fierce contest, struggling for domination.
The Right-Handed Twin (sometimes called Sapling or the Good Twin, Skyholder), responsible for creating everything good, from people and animals to useful plants, has to protect his creations against his evil brother the Left-Handed Twin (sometimes called Flint, or the Bad Twin/Troublemaker), the one who was busy making troublesome things, poisonous herbs, bad animals, darkness. Unable to best each other through cunning or even violence, the brothers had finally settled on solving their differences through Peach Stone Game, a game of luck.
It is reported that since those old, old times, people are expected to reenact this sacred game in honor of their creators. Through certain ceremonies – namely Mid-Winter, Seed and Harvest Ceremonies – Peach Stone Game is played on the second, or sometimes third day of the festivities, lasting for many hours, to “…amuse the life-giving forces, please the plant and animal kingdom and make the creator laugh…”. The message people are sending back to the Right-Handed Twin is that they are grateful for what they have and willing to share it with others.
A flat-bottomed wooden bowl containing six flat stones, fruit pits or nut shells, painted on one side and unmarked on the other, is switching hands between two players, who shake it vigorously in turns, causing its contents mix. The most desirable outcome is when all stones display either their painted or unpainted sides. Such turn brings the lucky player an immediate victory of the entire round, enriching him with one of the bets and five beans from the central pile. Usually the game is started with one hundred and one bean in the ‘bank’- a hundred for the actual betting, and the additional one for the creator.
If the player got five stones of the same color – whether marked or unmarked – he collects one bean and goes on shaking the bowl one more time.
The throw of four beans or less give the player nothing but the loss of his turn to his opponent, who would be now eager to get the score of five or more, hoping to win the entire round either by getting all stones on the same side or by scoring five stones after five stones until the beans of that round come into his possession one by one.
The moment the turn ends, the losing player vacates his seat for the next member of his team, to take his place and hope for the better luck.
The game can go on for hours, if not days, accompanied with much excitement and maybe even side betting of the onlookers. But when played traditionally, through one of the three ceremonies, the bets are always returned to their owners in the end.
An excerpt from “The Foreigner”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #2.
“One more bean to the Turtle Clan!”
People let out a held breath. The cheers filled the air, louder, more uninhibited than before. No matter what clan each observer wanted to win, so many favorable throws in such a short period of time, with no luck at all for the other side, were a rare thing. The spirits truly favored the renowned leader, as they always had.
“One more bean and they’ll have to look for another player,” said someone.
“And in the meanwhile, we get our well-deserved refreshments.” Iheks’s voice was back to his usual lightness. “I’m starving.”
“Don’t count on the feast of yesterday,” someone said with a laugh.
“Wolf Clan is busy losing the game. They won’t be organizing our meals today.”
“So what? Others can do that as well.”
“Not as well as the Wolves.” The man next to Ganayeda beamed at him. “You should have been here yesterday, Brother, instead of running all over, picking fights with our disgusting neighbors from across the lake. What a feast it was, and what dances! No one wished to retire to sleep, not one single person, not even our exotic guests.”
“Oh, the Long Tails? They are still here?” Encircling the crowds with his gaze, he suddenly realized that he had forgotten all about this troublesome delegation. What became of them?
“Oh, yes, they are.” This time it was Iheks again, shifting his weight from one foot to another, waving away a fly. “They will be participating in the ballgame, or so I hear. If our Onondaga Town’s opponents will arrive in time, that is.”
“Only four stones!” cried out one of their neighbors.
At the center of the contest, the bowl passed back to the Wolf Clan man, to many outcries of disappointment.
“No one can get five stones time after time,” stated Ganayeda, as disappointed as the rest of them.
“Unless you are favored by the Great Spirits themselves.”
“Well, the War Chief is favored. He won four rounds in no time. But then, it was only expected.” Iheks’s chuckle floated in the pleasantly sunny air. “I can’t recall a time when our leader failed, whether organizing, campaigning, or engaging in throwing games.”
Another bang of the bowl. Ganayeda shifted his eyes to the people crowding the other side. Jideah was standing among those in the forefront, looking pale and unwell. Was she ill?
Catching her gaze, he nodded amiably enough. Or so he hoped. Somehow he didn’t wish to interact with his wife, not now. Maybe later, when he wasn’t as angry over what happened near Lone Hill, when he had stopped thinking about Gayeri in the hands of the filthy enemy.
The wave of rage was back, washing his insides in perfect accord with the collective gasp that escaped many throats, rising like a tide. His mind snapped back to the present.
One arm protecting his wounded side, he moved forward together with the shifting crowd, his attention again on the players. Father’s back was as straight as an arrow, while his rival leaned forward, examining the contents of the bowl with his eyes so wide they turned round. The counters from both clans froze as well, bent above the object of the staring, as motionless as a pair of rocks. The silence was brief but encompassing.
“Could it be?” breathed someone, and then the crowds erupted into yells and cheers, while the counting man of the Wolf Clan straightened up slowly, lifting the bowl, afraid to breathe on it, let alone shake it.
“Six unmarked stones,” he said, offering it to the closest of the observers. “All stones are displaying their painted side.” Clearing his throat, he encircled his spellbound audience with a wide-eyed gaze, repeating loudly, in an echoing voice. “The lucky throw!”