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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

The cultural force of bingo is stronger than ever

BY Neil Diamond Mar 24, 2023

Bingo has been a Cree tradition since the 1950s, completing its conquest of Eeyou Istchee only 30-odd years after its invention in the US, where churches and charity groups would play for low stakes. 

In some Native communities down south, many of those casinos with gaudy neon lights that are visible for miles around began long ago as humble bingo halls. For instance, the Seminole gambling palaces in Florida started off as tiny bingo trailers. Today, they are one of the wealthiest tribes in the world – they purchased the Hard Rock Café restaurant-bar-slash-museum empire in the early 1990s for $1 billion. 

To this day, at many casinos in Oklahoma, hidden away from view usually, will be a tiny hall reserved for bingo. Now, however, they are quiet and almost empty save for a few elderly ladies squinting at their bingo cards.

Bingo in Rupert House started sometime in the 1950s at the now long-gone J.S.C. Watt Memorial Hall at the end of town. Mrs. Maude Watt’s bingo games offered baked goods and merchandise as prizes. 

One evening Roderick W. won a pair of bloomers and waved them around to everyone’s laughter. On another game night an elderly man coughed too hard and blew the paper markers off his soon-to-be-winning card. Several young boys tried to help him replace the markers but abandoned him when the game continued. 

According to George, who claims to have been an infrequent player, things were not always on the up and up at Mrs. Watt’s games. The same group of women always seemed to be the one who would shout BINGO! He called bingo once and Mrs. Watt checked his winning card only to declare it invalid. Sure enough, one of Watt’s ladies had the winning card after several more numbers were called. 

It’s not that easy to cheat at bingo, as we will see later in our story. Suffice it to say that bingo nights back then were small, fun, communal affairs until radio appeared.

I spent quite a bit of time in Whapmagoostui-Kuujuaraapik several years ago. There was a bingo game almost every single night. It was not a case of bingomania as I believed it to be. 

There are two radio stations in town and the Cree and Inuit would take turns broadcasting their games. I would call a friend to chat and after a few seconds I would hear his wife in the background ordering him to stay off the line. I imagine many players had both radio stations on speed dial before the age of cellular phones. 

The bingo prizes in Great Whale can be quite grand. One can win several thousand dollars, a speedy snowmobile, an ATV, even a shiny new car! 

Bingo can be an expensive affair in an isolated community like Whapmagoostui. The boxes and boxes of cards must be flown in by air cargo after all. Still, on cold winter nights, people bundle up and head to the radio station, cash in hand, dreaming of hitting the jackpot.

Gambling has always been big in the Cree world. So much so that a Creenglish word –  jackheejanuu – was coined for at least three games where money was involved, those being the checkers, poker and craps that were constantly played down by the river in Rupert House. It seemed almost everyone had a deck of cards or a pair of dice in their pockets when we were young. 

Then there was the coin toss, which combined skill and chance. A short stick was stuck into the ground and made smooth and flat. The object was to land coins as close to the stick as possible. Whoever’s coin landed the closest would gather the coins. Depending on whether “shaking” or “taking” was called, they would take the ones that landed heads up, or cup the coins, shake them down and take the one he called would land heads or tails up. There was no way to cheat at this game. It was all in the wrist.

Which brings us, finally, to a recent incident at a radio station close to you. There was yet another bingo game one night with a meagre pot of $3,000. A gentleman called the station claiming to have the winning number. The card was verified, and he was awarded the cash. 

Not long after, someone noticed the 3 on the number 23 had been not too cleverly altered to read 8. The jig was up. 

Angry bingo players took to social media to rant and rave. Some blamed the radio station, others called for the culprit’s head. The police were soon involved. Rumours flew back and forth. Accusations of fraud were heard. Fisticuffs were reported.

In the end, the money was returned unspent, and no charges were laid. But there was to be no happy ending. As of now, all bingo games have been suspended until further notice.

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Neil Diamond is a filmmaker, writer, founder and owner of the Nation. He currently resides in his home community of Waskaganish.