The Biggest Losers: Gambling and Enslavement in Native North America

Author(s): Lindsay Johansson; Catherine Cameron

Year: 2015


This paper explores an apparently common outcome of gambling among the indigenous inhabitants of North America – the enslavement of individuals who wagered themselves (or their family members) and lost. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware that slavery was not a post-contact phenomenon, but existed prehistorically in societies operating at a variety of socio-political scales from bands to states (Cameron 2008, 2011, in prep., Kohler and Turner 2006, Koziol 2012). Most captives were taken during raids or warfare, but the ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and historic data we present suggests that gambling could also be a source of slaves. We present accounts of men gambling away children, wives, and eventually themselves, sometimes limb by limb. In some cases these unfortunate people became slaves for life. In others, they could be redeemed by their relatives who paid their debt or through their own efforts at repayment. Sometimes the winning gambler sold his newly acquired slave to another, often distant, group so he would not have to suffer disapproval for enslaving a fellow group member. We argue that these accounts provide evidence that enslavement through gambling also occurred prehistorically and then use oral histories to support our argument.

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The Biggest Losers: Gambling and Enslavement in Native North America. Catherine Cameron, Lindsay Johansson. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 394865)


Gambling Slavery