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Chaco Canyon and The Gambler


”  . . . I follow numerous scholars by arguing in favor of combining oral traditions with archaeology to develop a fuller understanding of the past.”

Robert S. Weiner


Chaco Canyon comprises the largest collection of ancient ruins in the United States. They are spread out over the 25,000 square miles of the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico, and only a few of  about 2,400 archaeological sites have been excavated. Robert S. Weiner, who gave a lecture at Southwest Seminars in Santa Fe on April 2, believes that a Navajo myth about The Gambler could provide some insights into the development of the Chaco community and its demise.


Weiner is a young man, and he said that he may change scholarly direction for his PhD, but his paper, “Sociopolitical, Ceremonial, and Economic Aspects of Gambling in Ancient North America: A Case Study of Chaco Canyon,” seems very timely. He wrote that gambling is all about the “unknown,” like where to plant corn and whether sufficient rainfall will nourish it. We are facing deep drought again in New Mexico, so Chaco’s story may be cautionary.

The more you learn about Chaco, the more enigmatic it becomes. The complex didn’t just happen, rooms randomly added to existing construction year after year. It was clearly created through a vision, a dream, or mission that endured for about 300 years. The blueprint in the originating minds was governed by the alignment of buildings with solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. In his talk, Weiner described it as a way of linking authority and social order with natural order, of recreating “sky on the earth.” The overall intent, however, was to create what he described as a “striking outward appearance.”

The inspiration for this design may have come from the site itself. Perhaps the geology, the landscape, the light and energy of the basin endowed it with an inspiring mystical quality. Here are some details of an extraordinary development that was launched sometime in AD 800 and peaked in AD 1092:

Pueblo Bonito

  • The buildings were constructed with native sandstone but using masonry techniques unique for their time.
  • About 240,000 timbers were carried to the sites from forests 50 to 70 miles away.
  • Walls were in some cases four and five stories high, as much as three feet thick at the base.
  • The largest complex, Pueblo Bonito, covered two acres and included 650 rooms.
  • More than 150 additional complexes (also called “Great Houses”) were created with 200 to 700 rooms.
  • A web of six road systems, generally of straight lines and as long as 60 miles and 30 feet wide in places, connected the complexes.

In spite of the fact that the complexes were so large, it seems that few people lived in the residences full-time. This may be deduced in part from the number of hearths in Pueblo Bonito.  There were only 69 hearths in 650 rooms, even though winter temperatures could drop to -32° F. In addition, only a few streams provided water, and rainfall was only about 7 to 8 inches per year. This amount was insufficient to raise enough maize to feed a large community. So how did the community survive? This is where gambling comes into the picture.


Apparently, gambling or gaming is and has always been widely practiced among Native American tribes. In fact, Weiner pointed out in his paper that an archaeologist named Stewart Culin reported in 1907 on finding dice in 130 different tribes in 30 different linguistic stocks.

We think of gambling as primarily a recreational activity, but Weiner refers to the Native American practice as a “technology” that had “social, economic, religious, and political functions.” He goes on to say that it allowed diverse individuals to interact and “exchange information, goods, and marriage partners and to foster a larger group identity.” It occurred most often between tribes, not within them, since people were reluctant to take from their neighbors in a village.

In Chaco Canyon, 471 gaming artifacts were found, including wooden cylinders (kick-sticks), bone dice, and “shinny” sticks. But that wasn’t all. Other artifacts included things like turquoise, cacao, copper bells, musical instruments from conch shells, and the remains of scarlet macaws. All these items came from far away, including Mexico as well as distant communities in New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. Were these items that might have been won through gambling?

In his talk, Weiner referred to a new interest among archaeologists in the “agency of objects.” This is about the power they are endowed with through senses responding to sound, color, and mystical associations. For example, about 600,000 turquoise objects have been excavated at Chaco. Its color is evocative of sky, water, water in solid form, and green plants. These must have been appealing associations in an arid land.

Chaco Gambling Artifacts

Clearly, objects to be treasured were coming into Chaco, but what did the bearers get in return? Was the trek to Chaco like a pilgrimage to a sacred landscape to gain a larger sense of connection with distant communities, or was the primary allure the opportunity to gamble?

Weiner explained that gambling was cast differently for these early people than it is for modern, non-Native players. Those who won triumphed, but those who lost were framed as generous. Today it is promoted as “fun” and the chance to win big bucks.

And did the masterminds (Weiner did not use that term) behind Chaco plan to use gambling from the beginning to construct the monument? After all, individuals who lost everything might eventually bet family members and themselves to the point where they were enslaved by the winners. Those slaves could have become labor for construction that went on for decades and even hundreds of years.

As Chaco Canyon continued to develop, it must have become clear that an elite of “winners” had developed. Perhaps their skill at gambling seemed to endow them with supernatural powers, knowledge, and wisdom as well as wealth, and here comes the myth of The Gambler.


As I wrote earlier, Chaco Canyon reached its peak in AD 1092. In 1130, a 50-year drought began that would figure in its demise. In spite of their wealth and power, the elite of Chaco Canyon could do nothing to alter the weather, and people began to move away. The culture began to disintegrate, resulting in evidence of cannibalism as well as acts of violence. New droughts struck beginning in AD 1250. Outlying communities depopulated, and by the end of AD 1400, the main buildings of Chaco were “neatly sealed,” as Weiner put it, and abandoned.

When the people moved away, some of their descendants would become Hopi, Apache, and Navajo, and the Navajo developed a myth that seemed to explain what had happened in Chaco Canyon. The myth of The Gambler was first recorded about 100 years ago, and it takes various forms. The core idea, Weiner wrote, was that The Gambler appeared in Chaco one day wearing a characteristic piece of turquoise jewelry. He began to gamble with the people and he always won. Eventually they gambled away everything they had. Finally they bet their family members and even themselves, and they all became slaves.

The Sun and the deities became angry, and they created The Hero to challenge The Gambler in all his games. The Hero beat The Gambler and won all his treasure. The people wanted The Hero to kill him or send him away, but the Sun intervened and told them to use a magical bow to shoot him up into the heavens. The people were now afraid of The Hero, but he set them all free. They left Chaco, heading into the four directions. However, the Navajo story ends by saying that The Gambler eventually returned as the god of the Spaniards and Mexicans.

Navajo Bow and Arrow


There are 28 casinos run by pueblos in New Mexico today, and the pursuit of wealth by this means also engages Hispanics and Anglos. The pursuit of status and wealth also endures through investing, which is a form of gambling. Modern culture parallels with that of Chaco Canyon in other ways as well.

Native Americans have always cultivated spiritual practices dedicated to securing protection and guidance from celestial beings, and this seems characteristic of humanity in general. Prayer, rituals, gifts, sacrifices, chants, and singing have been ways to negotiate safety, conquest, abundance, and the cooperation of deities and the elements. In the Southwest, the people relied on the visions of shamans to learn about the future and to enlist the help of spirits to meet their needs. As Chaco moved toward crisis, the need was to terminate the drought, and of course this was not possible either for the elite there or their spiritual leaders.

It is an interesting coincidence that we are again facing the potential for deep drought in the Southwest. These conditions have always been periodic, but the emerging one is freighted by association with global warming and climate change. In being informed about this possibility, we rely today on scientists rather than shamans, and they have been playing the role of oracles worldwide.

The scientists “read” the future through the collection and analysis of data, observation through telescopes and microscopes, and also the study of history and the natural world. That knowledge has revealed the means by which we may escape the devastation of warming and radical weather. Ironically, however, climate scientists do not garner the same collective respect or trust as did spiritual leaders who practiced “divination” in the past. People on both sides of this issue are gambling that they are correct.

If the science oracles remain unable to mobilize the collective will to mitigate climate change, this will be due in part to the way this would interfere with the accumulation of certain kinds of wealth. If the scientists are correct and a reckoning ensues, perhaps descendants will come up with a myth like The Gambler to explain it. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “The myth does not point to a fact; the myth points beyond facts to something that informs the fact.” (Italics mine.)

I would love to know how this turns out.



2 Responses to “Chaco Canyon and The Gambler”

  1. Maggie maxwell

    What a fascinating article about one of the most beautifuly and mysterious (and to some extent sad) places. There is so much yet to learn and a shortage of dedicated people so your noting this young man, Weiner, is wonderful. As you described Chaco in your article and the stories and legend, it made me think that that was the Vegas of the day….gambling, “hotels”, distractions and such (saying this with tongue in cheek). Thank you for another informative and interesting look at New Mexico.

  2. judi

    I was in Chaco for sunrise on the summer solstice several years ago, and it was the kind of experience you never forget. On another visit I took one of the ranger tours. The story he told about the place was equally fascinating, but entirely different from this one. I’m not sure we’ll ever sort it all out…but then, I’m convinced that some things are meant to remain a mystery.