Apache Playing Cards


The Apache playing cards are a classic example of a crosscultural artistic exchange, combining traditional pictographic representation of nontraditional design and imagery. The Apache traditional artistic interpretation were more abstract than their contemporary Western artistic tradition.

Members of the Hernan Cortes were the first to bring playing cards to the mainland America in 1519 and it took another 70 years, with Juan de Onate in 1598, for the first deck of cards to appear in the Upper Rio Grande River Valley. The local Native population being fond of gambling readily took on this new game of luck with its unusual features of shape, form and colorful design. Numerous mentions of indigenous people indulging in fierce card games have been recorded since the late 16th century.

The cards and games that the early Spanish conquerors brought with them were of the Latin Suit system, itself of an Islamic origin, common in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Sailors and soldier adventurers were avid gamblers so much so that the church and Spanish crown tried to prohibit the export of playing cards to the New World. Like most prohibition it did not work and the government did the next best thing that all government do, if you cannot stop it, tax it!

Overtime, from the traditional Spanish games, evolved new, authentic games of which the Mexican Monte was the most popular, certainly with the Native people.

This game is simple and easy to learn. Very little strategy, scheme and tactic is involved, the only required “skill” is a fascination with Lady Luck!

The set has 40 cards broken down into 4 suits: coins, swords, clubs and cups each of 10 cards with 3 figures, King (Rey), Knight (Caballero) and Page (Sota) and 7 numerals, ace through 7.


In a simplified version of the game, one player is the banker or house, he lays 2 cards face up keeping the rest of the pack face down. The other players place their bets on either card, gambling that the card coming off the bottom of the pack is of the suit bet on! That's it! A winner gets a 1 to 1 return and the banker scoops up all the losing bets. The quickness of the game is also part of the attraction.

No one really knows when the first Native made playing cards were created, but most of the records seem to indicate that the majority of the packs in collections today are from 1825 to 1900.

When unable to trade or buy paper cards from the Europeans, the Indians made theirs out of animal skin and decorated them to imitate the imagery of the Mexican cards. They did not try to copy the style, only keeping the essence of it they painted the cards within their own traditional artistic customs and worldviews.

Most, if not all of the known sets of cards indicate an Apache creation. Even the ones collected from other tribes look Apache. No one, so far, has been able to explain why other tribe did not make them too.

Our subject set of cards comes from a private collection. It has 37 rawhide cards made of what some “experts” believe to be pig skin. I’m not sure if they were experts in skin or cards! The cards are all roughly cut to the same size (3 1/2” x 2 1/4”) with rounded corners. Overtime they acquired a curved shape that would make it hard to shuffle! They are in excellent condition with a nice, rich patina.

The first 3 suits, cups, swords and coins are complete, where the fourth one, clubs is missing the knight, page and number 6 cards. The graphic style is an exemplary traditional form rendering the essence of the subject in a stylized, minimal figurative pattern.

The court cards are characteristic of a Apache traditional art. Blocky bodies with stick arms and legs, round or triangular head without facial features but each is easily differentiated. The Kings, wearing richly decorated overcoats on Spanish cards, are shown by Apache artists as long rectangles with elaborate decoration, no legs, short arms. The Knight is on a horse, of course, with square, colorful body and more defined arms and a leg showing under the horses bellies. The Pages have more define arms and legs, also wearing elaborate shirts. Two of them are wearing what has been identified as cartridge belts, illustrated by a thick horizontal line at the junction of the body and legs.

An interesting feature to notice is that only the cup king is wearing a crown, but one page is also wearing one. Obviously the Apache artist, being from a more egalitarian society and culture had no problem using a status and power symbol of a foreign culture on distinct figures!

The numerical cards are also very stylized and symbolic. The swords and clubs differentiate by the addition of spikes on the clubs. Our suit of club is somewhat inconsistent in its imagery, the King and 7card could be confused for swords when the other numerals don the characteristic spikes. Were they from another pack? Hard to tell. The rawhide is identical to the rest of the set so is the style and decoration, we’ll certainly never really know.

This particular artist did not outline any of the figures in black. His palette consist of bright, vibrant blue, yellow, red, orange and a little bit of white for the page of coins cartridge belt. This beautiful, rare set of Apache playing cards is a typical example of a 19th indigenous folk art adaptation of an alien object.