Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Poker Jim outsharked in card game

One of Eastern Oregon’s most well-known Indian leaders, Poker Jim, died March 5, 1936, at his home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation after a cold turned into pneumonia. He was believed to be approximately 93 when he died. Long known as the chief of the Indian encampment at the Pendleton Round-Up from the very beginning, Poker Jim was a proponent of keeping his people’s old ways and was well known for the Fourth of July celebrations on the reservation that featured horse racing, gambling and traditional tribal dances. He was not a tribal chief on the Umatilla reservation but was the father of one of the most famous, Clarence Burke, and a great spiritual leader of his people.

Sap-Ut-Ka-Low-Nee (“White Swan”) was born near Wallula and was affiliated with the Walla Walla tribe. He was old enough to remember the Whitman Massacre, and was part of a group that tried to join Chief Joseph during the Nez Perce war to retain the Wallowa country in the late 1870s. He also served as a scout under Captain Collier during the Bannock Indian War in 1878. He was well known among the settlers in Pendleton and, when the inaugural Round-Up was planned in 1910, city leaders convinced Poker Jim to lead an Indian encampment as part of the festivities, an honor he retained for 25 years until his death.

Most who knew him agreed that before he lost his sight, Poker Jim could fleece just about anyone in a game of cards and it was said that was how he came to have his colorful moniker. One story of an attempted card-sharking appeared in the Sept. 22, 1916, East Oregonian Round-Up souvenir edition, as purportedly told by Colonel John Sims to Col. William Parker.

Col. Sims, no mean card player himself, happened to run into Poker Jim riding along the Snake River between Walla Walla and Asotin, Wash., sometime during the 1870s and was convinced to sit down for a game. Knowing Poker Jim’s reputation as a card player, Col. Sims went into the game vowing to bet carefully, lest he lose more than he could afford.

Poker Jim took a blanket from under the skirts of his saddle and laid it on the ground. When Sims offered his personal deck of cards for the game the Indian insisted on using his own pack that he produced from under the blanket, and to humor him Sims went along. When he looked over the pack, Sims noticed all four aces were in the deck and wondered what Poker Jim could possibly be holding back, since Sims figured there was a secret hand somewhere that would be produced in time for the big reveal. Sims managed to secure all four aces during the early betting stages and as the game wore on the betting went higher, until finally both men had wagered everything in their pockets, and their horses and tack to boot.

When time came for the draw, Sims instead turned over his hand, showing the four aces. Poker Jim glared at the cards, then gathered both hands up with the discard pile, shoved them under the blanket and, with a grunt, started back up the road to Asotin.

“I do not know to this day what the hand was he was prepared to spring on me,” Col. Sims related, “but have always thought it must have been another four aces.” Poker Jim, knowing he was caught if he revealed his hand, had simply acknowledged his loss with the best grace possible. The two never met again, but Sims never failed to chuckle at later stories of men who, thinking they could take advantage of him, were taken themselves by Poker Jim.

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