The Game of Waltes

Waltes, also called woltestakun or altestakun is a kind of dice game thought to be of pre-Columbian origin. It is played on a circular wooden dish (usually of rock maple) about twelve inches in diameter, hollowed to three-quarters of an inch at its centre. There are six dice made of caribou bone with flat faces and rounded sides; one face being plain, and the others bearing a dotted cross. When all the marked or all the unmarked faces are turned up there is a count of five points. If five marked faces and one unmarked face or five unmarked faces and one marked face are turned up one point is given, and if a die falls off the dish there is no count. There are fifty-five counting sticks: fifty-one plain, rounded sticks about seven and a half inches long, a king pin shaped like the forward half of an arrow, and three notched sticks representing half of the end of an arrow. These latter four are about eight inches long. Three of the plain sticks count as one point; notched sticks have a five point value, and the king pin varies in value, being used as a fifty-second plain stick except when it stands alone in the general pile. It then has a five point value like the notched sticks. The possible points of the count are seventeen ( one-third of fifty-one) on plain sticks, and fifteen (five times three) on the three notched sticks, for a total of thirty-two, but the count can also be extended indefinitely.

Waltes Bowl and sticks

Two players sit opposite each other with the dish between them, usually on a piece of leather or cloth. The six dice are placed on a dish with marked faces downward. A player takes the dish in both hands, raising it an inch or two from the ground, and brings it down with enough force to turn the dice. If all but one of the upturned faces are marked or unmarked, he repeats the toss and continues to do so as long as one of such combinations result. When he fails to score, the amount of his winnings is withdrawn from the general pile and forms his private pile. The other player repeats the dice throwing until he, too, fails to score. Two successive throws of either a single point or of five points count three times the amount of one throw (i.e. three or fifteen points, respectively). Three successive throws count five times as much as a single throw, etc. When the pile of counting sticks is exhausted, the player who scores first takes a single plain stick from his pile and places it by itself, with one of its sides facing him to represent one point, and perpendicular to this (horizontally or vertically) to represent five points.

He continues to add sticks as he continues to score. Use of sticks as counters to represent unpaid winnings is a means of delaying further settlement until the game seems near its end. It also increases the count indefinitely to meet the indefinite duration of the game, because as one player secures a token, the other player merely reduces his opponent’s token pile by the value of his score. This reduction occurs by returning from the token pile to the private pile the amount of the opponent’s score.

Therefore, at any time, the token pile indicates the advantage its owner has scored since the last settlement. (Settlements are made at the discretion of the players, usually when one player’s token pile represents a value nearing the limit of the other player’s ability to pay). If one player allowed deferrment of settlement until he were no longer able to pay his debts, then he would lose the game to the other player. If, after the settlement, one player retains five plain sticks but not more, than a new feature is introduced to that player’s advantage. If, while keeping his five sticks, a player can score five points before his opponent scores at all, he will win the game even though his opponent has a greater amount of winnings. If his opponent scores one point only before he can get his five points, he still has a chance, though it is reduced. After paying the three plain sticks that represent a single point, if two plain sticks still remain to him, he is forced to win seven points before his opponent wins one point or he must forfeit the game. If he succeeds in winning his seven points, then the game is still his, but at no time can he score more points than are represented in his private pile. So, if he only has five plain sticks, he could score only one point even if his toss called for five, but with six plain sticks he could score two points, with nine sticks three points, and so on.

To sum up: with only five plain sticks five points are necessary to win; with four plain sticks five points are needed to win; with three sticks six points; with two sticks seven points; with one stick seven points. There are two additional rules: in counting five points on the plain sticks four bundles of four each are given instead of the five bundles of three each as one might expect, for a total of sixteen, and to count six points a notched stick plus only two plain sticks are used instead of the usual three.

The Waltes dish itself was considered to be important in Mi’kmaw mythology. When filled with water and left overnight, its appearance the following morning would reveal knowledge of the past, present, and future. The king pin was also referred to as kesegoo, the old man, and the notched sticks were his three wives and the plain sticks were his children. The Mi’kmaq explain these terms with the theory that when a stranger calls, the children come out of the wigwam first, followed by the women, and then the head of the family, and this is what happens during the game of Waltes. The ‘technical’ name for the king pin is nandaymelgawasch and for the wives, tkomwoowaal, both of which mean ‘it counts five’ or ‘they count five’. Certain ‘passes’ are made by the players during Waltes, in which the right hand is passed rapidly to the left over the dish and quickly shut, exactly as if catching a fly. Wedding ceremonies among the Mi’kmaq were celebrated by the guests for four days – on the first day they danced the serpent dance, on the second they played football or tooad ik, on the third day they played lacrosse or madijik, and on the fourth day, Waltes.

Description of the game of Waltes taken from the writings of Stansbury Hagar, in Games of the North American Indian, Volume One Games of Chance, by Stuart Culin, published by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1992, pp.74-76.