What we can learn from indigenous gifting and games of chance.
The longer you spend engaging in blockchain discourse, the more variations you will hear on the same analogy: “Crypto is a casino!”
I’ve written elsewhere about the many applications of blockchain technology to domains beyond mere asset speculation (NFTs, DAOs, smart contracts), and hope to write more on this in the future. But for today I thought it would be interesting to think about the ways in which this metaphor captures something true about this technology and its attendant financial and cultural practices. Let’s take it as a given that the entire blockchain space amounts to what is essentially a glorified, decentralized casino — what then?
First off, we should try to unpack what the term “casino” wants to communicate. In our Calvinist/Puritan-derived culture, almost all betting activities are understood to have very low moral status. Gambling is associated with fecklessness, profligacy, and ruination. Moreover, gamblers themselves are lazy; rather than building wealth through hard work and shrewd dealings, gamblers seek shortcuts in games of chance that require no skill or expertise. They are addicts whose free will and capacity for clear thinking has been replaced by overwhelming, all-consuming, compulsive thrill-seeking.
These are many of the same qualities that inform some of the more denigrating stereotypes about the people most closely associated with gambling as an industry: Native Americans. Most readers in the United States probably already know, but for those who may be tuning in from elsewhere in the world, casinos are illegal in most parts of this country (Las Vegas, NV, and Atlantic City, NJ are two notable exceptions). However, these laws do not apply on tribal land. That’s why there is such a proliferation of casinos on Indian reservations across the country. Forcibly displaced from our ancestral land, many indigenous tribes found themselves removed to the margins of mainstream American society, where vices like gambling are allowed so long as they remain in relative obscurity.
The association between casinos and Native Americans creates a sort of gross metonymy that encourages colonizers to graft their own weird moral hangups onto us. But games of chance are extremely popular in many indigenous communities independently of the laws, customs, and anxieties of European Americans. After frybread and Pendletons, the most popular pan-Indian cultural fixture has got to be raffles!
In many cases, our enthusiasm for aleatory play predates colonial contact. For instance, in my tribe (Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma) we have a long-standing tradition of playing the game of peach seeds. I don’t want to get too deep into the specifics as the rules and details vary somewhat– the way I play may not be the way everyone plays. But the basics: this is a game we play with the seeds from inside peach pits. The seeds are charred black on one side and painted white on the other. Players place their wagers before the game starts (the game can last many days), and the seeds are shaken up and thrown in a basket. The outcome is determined by counting the number of seeds that land white-side up vs. black-side up.
However, the peach seed game has some uncommon features that distinguish it from similar games that you might find in a casino, such as roulette or baccarat. In these casino games, individual gamblers determine everything about their own wagers — how they will bet, and how much they will win if they beat the house.
Peach seeds, on the other hand, is a team gambling game. When you play peach seeds, you are not only playing for yourself but for your entire clan (I am deer clan) and the direction, your clan and partner clans have in your camp direction (North, South, East, West)). Members of your clan can place bets without actually participating in the game. Conversely, you can also play for your clan without wagering anything yourself. If your clan wins, those who made wagers will get to keep their winnings whether or not they won their individual rounds, or even participated in the physical throwing of the seeds at all.
But even more interesting to me are the rules about the kinds of bets players are allowed to place. For example, let’s say I want to bet something like a shawl. To place a wager of a shawl, I would physically tie it to another shawl from the other camp. If I win, I win a shawl, because I had a shawl I could spare. If I lose, someone else, who also has a shawl to spare, will win my shawl. These are matched by equivalent value, so a handmade shawl would be tied to another handmade shawl, a store-bought one to a store-bought one of equal value, etc. You only bet what you can lose and what you gain is equivalent to what you were willing to lose.
Also if you lose your shawl, you will get it in the afterlife– a gift in this life will guarantee it will come back to you two-fold in the afterlife. That’s why it’s okay that my clan (Deer Clan) never wins at peach seeds. We’re a very spiritual clan, and will be richly compensated for our generosity in the hereafter.
Finally, unlike in modern casino games, peach seeds do not have a “house” that can “always win.” All wagers take place P2P. In my view, this is the most radical departure this game makes from casino gambling. It may seem like a small distinction, but it fundamentally recasts the social function of gambling. Rather than function as a rent-seeking enterprise that extracts money/resources from players in exchange for diversion or entertainment, peach seeds allow gambling to function as a tool for the equitable redistribution of wealth within the community. In other words, it is a form of gamified sharing.
It also ties the act of giving something away to a spiritual future. The highest form of honor is to have your gift received by a tribal member, and since both sides are equally dead-set on giving, we have games to spare the feelings of the “winners” who receive the largesse, when really, the more honorable would be to give. A public display of how much you can give to your community is a type of flex. It is an affirmation of your strength and wealth that you are able to provide for others. Giving and receiving are both occasions for celebration, and sometimes games of chance make this process less about maintaining a careful ledger and more about reveling in communal sharing. Instead of pitting an individual against their community, as casino gambling does, peach seeds actually reinforces the collectivist values that govern communal life in our society.
To return to crypto, I don’t dispute that the speculative financial dimension of cryptocurrency investing (especially) has much in common with gambling. But I would ask: how can we change the rules of these enterprises — maybe not globally, but at least within our own communities — so that they actually build up and contribute to our ability to materially support one another?
It’s ultimately not a question of technology, or of chance, but of vision of collective will.