The Indian Looks at the White Man

Playing-card Portraits of the Old West

By: Virginia Wayland

Originally Published in 1972

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Anglo artists such as Frederick Remington and George Catlin and writers such as John Gregory Bourke and Josiah Gregg have given us vivid pictures of the migration to, and settling of, the Western United States. We lean heavily on such accounts for our understanding of this period of expansion. However, we seldom stop to realize that we are seeing it from only the Anglo-American point of view. How did it look to the Mexican, the Oriental, or the Indian? We have some Mexican accounts, including those of Spanish church fathers, but from the contempo­rary Oriental or the Indian there is little recorded history.

It is therefore unexpected and of unusual interest that we find westerners pictured on raw­hide playing cards—westerners as seen by Indian artists during the last half of the nineteenth century. These include representatives from all three of the cultures that were mixing to form the “West.” Figure #1 shows an Indian ceremonial dancer gaily painted in yellow, red and blue costume complete with feather and arm streamers. The second card shows a colorfully dressed Mexican vaquero sitting on his horse patiently tending his herd of cattle. The third card is an unusually attractive picture of a United States Army trooper mounted on his red horse, dressed in blue tunic and regulation hat. He might be ready for a march into Indian territory. These western figures were part of the everyday life of a Southwest Indian—in the case of these artists, Apache.

It will be shown that most of the card por­traits were painted by Apaches but there are a few notable ones from other tribes. We will mention these when they occur.

Why did the Indians come to present, on play­ing cards, figures chosen from the life around them?

Western Indians seem to have learned about playing cards mainly from the Mexicans. Con­temporary observers tell us they saw Indians playing with Mexican-type cards as far north as St. Louis. They were playing Mexican Monte, a gambling game of the faro type which was very popular throughout the Southwest. Of the sixty-four packs of Indian-made cards I have so far seen, all except one have Spanish-Mexican suits, figure cards, and the forty-card format character­istic of a Monte pack. This applies even to the few packs collected from Plains Indians.

We do know from Bernal Diaz’s account that Montezuma was fascinated by the sight of Cortes’ soldiers playing cards. We are told that merchants were selling cards in Mexico less than ten years after Cortes’ conquest. A royal Spanish revenue tax was soon placed on cards and their manu­facture and sale restricted to franchised agents.

There is an interesting court record in 1677 of the sentencing of Jose Lopez, a Spaniard, to serve two years as a “volunteer” soldier in New Mexico for illegal manufacture of playing cards. Is it too much to presume Lopez continued his lucrative hobby at his station on the northern frontier?

It would appear that Southwest Indians, Apache, Yuma, Navajo, etc., first learned about cards from Spanish and Mexican soldiers as these men ventured north, first exploring and then locating settlements. We are told that very early exploratory expeditions made peaceful contact with the Apaches. We can assume that the Indians involved in these early contacts saw and learned to play with Spanish or Mexican printed paper cards. These Southwest Indians probably bought or traded for cards for many years before they were forced to produce their own.

About 1800 the expansion pace began to pinch the Indian tribes in what is now Arizona, New Mexico and the north Mexican state of Sonoma. The Mexican cattle ranchers were push­ing up from the south and the American settlers were flooding in from the east. For the Pueblo Indians, co-existence became necessary, but for the nomadic and highly independent Apaches the situation became intolerable. Friction burst into open warfare. The Apaches were not traditionally a cohesive band. They tended to move around in family groups, sometimes quite small. Under this emergency they split into two groups, one of which remained peaceful and camped close to the army forts and depended on the army to feed them through the winter. The army found that men selected from this group proved to be their most valuable and reliable scouts. The other group of Apaches rated their personal independence so high they were willing to retreat deep into the inhospitable mountains to lead a free but precarious existence. We find contemporary accounts telling us that such free bands of Apaches often went south and drove off stolen Mexican cattle which they brought north for food for their families. They then sold the surplus to the American army posts. These same bands might also raid an army corral and drive off mules which they sold to the Mexican ranchers.

The friction was most intense between 1840 and 1890, and it is during this period that the Indian-made rawhide cards first began to appear. A few American ethnologists sent packs to the Smithsonian, which now has the largest number of these cards. Also some army personnel sent these interesting Indian artifacts to their eastern relatives. It was during these years that it became unhealthy for a nomadic Apache to venture into a settlement even on so peaceful a mission as to buy a pack of cards. Tension had become so high that at one point a bounty of two hundred dollars was put on a black-haired scalp and no questions asked as to the circumstances under which it was obtained.

To the Apache living back in the mountains, a card game was not only a fascinating and stim­ulating recreation but if he owned the cards he had a welcome source of money or goods. The most popular gambling game was Mexican Monte. In this game the odds are heavily in the favor of the banker and the owner of a pack of cards could set himself up as the banker.

Monte is a faro-type game. The pack is shuffled and placed face down on a table or the ground. The banker then draws two cards off the top and two cards off the bottom of the stack and places them face up in front of the stack or “monte.” The players are now at liberty to choose which exposed card they would like to bet will have the same suit as the card concealed on the bottom of the stack. When all bets are made, the banker then exposes the bottom card and pays and collects the bets. Since the strategic card is hidden on the bottom of the stack during the betting, it is possible to play this game with soiled, worn, mutilated or even marked cards without such clues affecting the outcome.

Much money and goods changed hands in the play of Monte. John Cremoney, an American, lived for several years among the Apaches. He reports: “They are the most reckless of all gam­blers, risking anything they possess upon the turn of a card … when cards are used [for gambling] everybody [men and women] takes a share in the business….” This love of gambling is perhaps understandable when one considers the precariousness of the life these nomads lived. It was not only among themselves they played. Anton Mas­sanovich, a U. S. trooper, tells that while escorting a group of Indian prisoners back to the fort, “in the evening, Johnston and I would spread a strip of canvas on the ground and deal monte for the Indians and troopers.” “The Indians were rather well supplied with Mexican silver. . . .” When Massanovich and Johnston reached the army camp, they “had several hundred dollars to the good, including four Indian ponies.”

Because in Monte the cards did not have to be completely uniform, it was possible for some hard-pressed and creative Indian to make himself a pack of cards out of readily available deer, horse, or cattle hide. The hide proved remarkably durable and suitable to a hard life and much use. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of existing skin cards are stiff and with good edges, even when soiled by many greasy hands. To prepare the hide, rub in the colors while the hide was still wet, and then cut out the cards when the hide was dry required considerable work and time. The rawhide cards were cut to be approx­imately the same size as printed cards. Paints were readily available. Both vegetable and com­mercial dyes were a part of every male Apache’s wardrobe, for he painted his body not only for war, but also for more frequent social occasions. The colors most commonly used on the cards are black, red and yellow; blue sometimes and, very occasionally, green.

Apaches prized their packs of cards. Bourke tells us that the Apache scout moved across the deserts without carrying food or water, living off the land. Bourke says he traveled “with fewer impedimenta than any other tribe of men . . but sometimes he allows himself the luxury or com­fort of a pack of cards imitated from those of the Mexicans and made out of horse-hide… .”

Bourke also relates that on one occasion, when the army was forced to remain in a mountain camp waiting for scattered Apaches to assemble for the march back to the army post, “the Apache scouts passed the time agreeably enough in gambling with the Chiricahuas whom they fleeced unmercifully, winning hundreds of dollars in gold, silver and paper.”

It appears that the task of painting the cards was so difficult or so time-consuming that an Indian usually made only one pack. In all the sixty-four packs known to me there are only two artistically similar enough that they might have been done by the same person. This suggests that we have a wide variety of artistic skills and a cultural commentary by many Indians. It is true that there are a few packs so clean or so obviously copies of printed cards that they may have been painted toward the end of the century for the tourist trade. But most of the cards are so worn and soiled that we can feel sure they played a part in Apache life.

The Spanish-Mexican prototypes for the Indian-made cards are not the same as the more widely known French-English bridge deck. The four suits are not hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs (which are really trefoils) but are coins, cups (often covered), swords, and clubs which are really cut limbs of a tree. There are three figure cards: a king or rey, a mounted knight or cabal­lero, and a page or sota. A Monte pack consists of only 40 cards, with the numeral cards only going from one to seven inclusive.

It is the figure cards in which we are most interested, because it is here we find our western portraits. The Indian artists did not, for the most part, try slavishly to follow the Spanish court figures printed on the paper cards. To do this would have required considerable artistic skill and our Indians were not practicing artists. Then, too, Spanish court costumes were outside the Indian’s range of experience so he simplified his figures to something he personally knew. The king figure was the least understood. In its simpli­fied form it became merely a rectangle with a knob on top. It is in the figures of the caballero and the sota, the mounted and standing man, that the artists painted men they saw about them.

Closest to his vision were his fellow Indians. We have already seen a charming ceremonial dancer, Figure #1. More often the presentation was quite simple and it is only by studying details that we recognize these as Indian figures. Men on horseback were a common sight. Horses played a big part in Indian life. Figure #4 shows a very spirited horse and rider. The dashing horse and man are painted in blue with a flowing red cape and headdress. The horse has long, alert, red ears. The cup suit symbol in the upper right corner is very ornate and prominent.

The next figure, #5, is from a late pack collected from a Sioux Indian. This unusually well-drawn pack has provided four of our illustrations because the artist recorded so many delightful people he saw around him. He is also one of our best draftsmen. This pack is attributed to the Sioux tribe and I’m inclined to agree, as typical Apache characteristics are missing and Figure #5 shows a warrior in unmistakable Plains Indian headdress. The horse is painted a realistic brown with distinctive brand on shoulder and flank. The Indian is seated on a red and green blanket with­out a saddle, and he wears boots but no spurs.

Figure #6 shows a very fine horse and rider which might be Mexican or Indian, but I’ve classi­fied it Indian because of the braids showing so prominently beneath the Mexican hat. The horse has a brown body with two black and two bright red legs—an unrealistic but very attractive design. Note the Arabian-type tail on the horse.

The next four illustrations—#7, #8, and #9 —show Indians wearing headdresses such as are worn for the Apache ceremonial gan or spirit dances. Animal-like ears are characteristic of some of these masks. Note the handwoven blanket-design of the costumes. The vertical striped “belts” were a mystery for some time but, alter viewing many of these, we now believe them to represent cartridge belts. You will note these again on some of the Mexican figures.

Many contemporary records mention that Indians were frequently seen in Mexico lounging on Mexican streets and ranchos. The Indians must have enjoyed seeing the dress of the Mexicans so unlike their own. They may even have bought and worn some items that especially took their fancy. Figure #10 is by the same artist as Figure #6. Again we have a horse with red and black legs and Arab tail. But this rider has beautifully curled mustaches. Apaches were inclined to remove the hair on their faces with a pair of tweezers. The balloon-like figure toward the upper left corner is a misrepresentation of the tradi­tional card cup symbol.

Figure #11 is a fine presentation of a Mexican settler with two pistols at his belt. Figure #12 is a very restrained but spirited equestrian galloping across the desert.

The next figure, #13, is of a Mexican that might well be seen on the dusty streets of a town or settlement.

Young Mexican caballeros loved to dress up. Matthew C. Field, a promising young American writer, spent a summer on the Santa Fe Trail in 1839 and he describes a colorful young caballero such as Indians might have seen. He says this young Mexican was mounted “on a remarkably large and well-fed mule, with saddle and other gear gorgeously decorated with silver, and little bells and ornaments jingling as he rode up… . This young Spaniard was the fine gentleman of Santa Fe, the very pink of the aristocracy….”

“His sombrero was an enormous, heavy, broad-brimmed beaver with a thin cord of gold wound around it several times. . . . Beneath his dark and raven locks . . . shone with dazzling effect…. His jacket of black cloth was covered with frogs and braid, and fitted him with exquisite neatness. He wore a shirt of American make, or at least not differing at all from our fashion, and round his neck a very elegant black silk handker­chief. He wore no vest, two breast pins glittered in his bosom, and a long, silken sash was wound in many folds around his waist. Suspenders they never wear…. The sash, folded tightly around the top of the pantaloons, is the only support given to the habiliment. These pantaloons have more peculiarity about them than any other part of a Mexican’s dress. The outside seam of each leg is left open from the hip down, for the purpose of exposing the white drawers beneath, which are made extremely wide.. .. His boots, too, caught our attention; they were made to lace on the out­side of the foot from the sole up, but were left flying open, and thus the white stocking was exposed. The long, silver espuelas (spurs) were attached to the heel of the boot, buttoned across the instep with a broad strap, and hanging below the foot, so that it was always necessary to remove them upon dismounting. . .” These bell­bottom trousers with the short, colorful jacket were carefully noted by many of the Apache artists, as in Figures #14, #15, and #16.

Two other personages from the Mexican scene were the Catholic padre and the Mexican soldier. Figure #17 might well be a padre jogging on his mule across the desert between Missions. Figure #18 appears to be a Mexican soldier like those who were sent to protect the settlements and ranchos from the Indians.

Anglo-Americans streamed across the Missis­sippi on a wide front. Our talented Sioux artist skillfully and interestingly presents some of those he saw on the Western plains. In this pack a date, 1893, is inked on the four of coins. We do not :­know if this was the artist’s date or the collector’s date, but it is rather late in the century. Figure#19 shows a fur trapper in typical mountain dress. Figure #20 is a beautifully appointed soldier who was of the type being sent by the American gov­ernment to make the West safe for settlers. Figure #21 shows a type of settler that was arriv­ing at that time.

Now going south toward Apache country, I’ve picked four quite different characters that night be seen on the Santa Fe Trail and in the settlements and army camps. Figure #22 shows n red and black a trader possibly riding with his. wagons loaded with eastern trading goods. Figure #23 is a relaxed settler or trail rider wandering the settlement streets. The last two figures are certainly more prosperous merchants in coats and more formal trousers (Figures #24 and #25). Figure #25 is from a later pack painted by a Yuma Indian and collected at Yuma in 1905. It may well represent a tourist who was already on his way to sunny California. He is very sporting in oink trousers, yellow coat, black vest and feath­ered straw hat.

The last portraits to which I would like to draw attention are not strictly pictures of western­ers, yet I feel they contribute to our conception of what Apaches were experiencing during this period of western expansion.

It is understandable that many of the Indians who got down to the actual work involved in making a pack of rawhide cards should do it in the simplest and easiest way. Simple match­stick line figures would have been adequate to identify the three types of figure cards. It is per­haps significant that most artists were not satis­fied with this but attempted to embellish their figures in some way. Illustration #26 shows no attempt at reality but is rather a simple, child-like design—a fantasy figure.

The artist of the next illustration (#27) seems to have had “superman” dreams. None of the twelve men figures painted by this Indian are enclosed by the edges of the card; heads, hands or feet always extend off the edge. Was he un­consciously protesting the Anglo and Mexican invaders who were threatening his personal independence and his way of life? All his men have big torsos and heavy, muscular shoulders. They are decorated in unusual ways. In this illustration, for example, the whole figure is painted in orange with red dots and with red and black fringe decorating the costume.

The two delightful kings shown in illustration #28 seem to point to an artist with a sense of humor. They are painted by the same Indian as the lively dancer in illustration #1, so we know he was well capable of painting a realistic figure. The two kings are completely fantastic, neither influenced by the traditional kings on the Mexican printed cards nor by those appearing on the cards of other Apaches. They are even more amusing and delightful when seen in their colors of orange, blue and yellow.

The next fantasy figure illustrated in #29 is a favorite of many people. Some might argue that this artist was too strongly influenced by the king in ceremonial Spanish court robes appearing on the Mexican printed cards. However, he has intro­duced his own feeling for decorating large and small areas with all-over patterns to make an unusually attractive design. He then proclaims his own.sense of humor in the jaunty feather on the cap.

The designs on some of the skin cards cause us to wonder how Apaches, living most of their lives at a subsistence level, roaming the mountain valleys, could produce the figures they did. Two of the figures which strain our understanding are in the last two illustrations (#30 and #31). This pack was bought from an Indian woman near Fort Bowie, Arizona, in 1876 by an American settler. These two figures, together with the caballeros in illustrations #6 and #10, are all from the same pack. The king figure is even more unusual than #28, being utterly unlike either Mexican kings or those done by other Apaches, although the figure does wear the traditional king’s crown. The colors are unusually pleasing: subtle, soft yellows and greens with black outline. Note the elaborate necklace and the chain belt.

The sota figure seems to wear knee breeches like the traditional Spanish page, but there the similarity ends. The stylized skirt or skirted jacket with its elaborate under-vest is completely unlike any costume appearing on either Mexican or Apache cards. Again there is an ornate necklace. Perhaps the most unusual feature of both of these cards is the chain arm. This artist painted four of his twelve figures with chain arms; why, we do not know. This feature does not appear on any of the other Apache cards, so it must have been a personal quirk.

It is amazing that an Indian, living most of his life as a nomad in the mountains and possibly only occasionally visiting raw pioneer settlements where there were no artistic advantages, could conceive and execute such delicate ballet-like figures. Certainly this particular Indian had a fertile imagination and unusual artistic ability.

The playing cards we have seen are, in the best sense, a true folk art. Folk art gives a view of an aspect of a culture presented on objects intimately connected with everyday life. This ex­pression must be lovingly done, creating some­thing beyond the minimal demands by an amateur for his own use. We have found these character­istics in the rawhide playing cards. The figures on the cards give us a dramatic expression, from the Indian point of view, of those who were settling the West in the last half of the 19th century.

Cite This Article

Wayland, Virginia. "The Indian Looks at the White Man." Expedition Magazine 14, no. 3 (March, 1972): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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