Daily Art Moment: Playing Cards

Image description: Playing Cards, Apache artist, colored ink on paper, 35 cards, each 3 ½ x 2 ¼ inches. Seven handmade playing cards decorated in bright reds and yellows displayed and labeled on a clear plastic holder. The top row of cards shows “Seven Swords” with three vertical swords over another three bisected by a horizontal sword. Next, a space is left for a missing card, “King Swords”. “Knight Swords” is next and shows a figure wearing a hat and yellow and red uniform riding a brown horse. “Page Swords” is last in the row; The figure wears a plumed hat, and its body is depicted as a long rectangle with a black X across it. Red and black dots decorate the body with smaller triangles making up the figure’s legs. The bottom row of cards starts with “Ace Coins” shown at a large yellow circle in center ringed with red and edged in small yellow triangles outlined in red. Two red semi circles bracket the yellow coin on top and bottom. The next card is “Two Coin”, two stacked yellow coins, rimmed with triangles and outlined in red. “Three Coins” shows the same style of coins positioned at 11, 3 and 6 o’clock. The last card in the bottom row is “Four Coins” and it uses the same yellow and red coin show one in each corner of the card. The cards rest on a clear plastic holder and paper labels separate the top and bottom rows.

The Native American art collection of the Portland Art Museum contains a number of surprising objects that have fascinating but little-known histories behind them. This set of Apache Playing Cards is a rare example of a playing card tradition among the Apache with very little published research. There is some documentation that suggests playing cards were introduced at contact by the Spanish in Mexico in the 16th century, and it is no surprise that they were adapted into Indigenous communities with established gaming practices.

Eventually, cards were manufactured by Native people themselves, with imagery loosely based on the original Spanish designs, but painted on alternative materials including tanned leather or rawhide, which was sturdier than paper. Only a handful of these cards exist in museum collections and most were collected from the Apache, who continued to use the cards well into the 19th century. The lack of interest or scholarship on these items is puzzling but it may be that early collectors dismissed them as hybrid objects or others, such as missionaries, frowned on gambling. It is a shame, since their cultural hybridity is evidence of a centuries-old tradition of Native people indigenizing introduced materials and practices, making them their own.

Kathleen Ash-Milby, Curator of Native American Art

Apache artist, Playing Cards, ca. 1880. Colored ink on paper. The Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection, 2012.92.7a-ii

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