Gambling has long been a part of most Native American cultures. Traditional handgames, involving song and trickery, are still played in community halls away from the casinos.


But modern Indian gaming owes its roots to bingo played in a double-wide trailer in 1975. To raise funds that year to start a fire department, the Oneida Nation in New York decided that because it was a sovereign entity, it could ignore the state's control of bingo. The rest is history.


At Fort McDowell in Arizona, the bingo operation, which was first called Ba'Ja (-the people" in Yavapai) Gaming Center, still thrives. While it now provides only a fraction of the casino's total profits, it continues to pack in some 2,000 players a day.


Newcomers to the Sunday Early Bird Bingo Session find the game tricky. You don't have to think much, but you have to know what to do and when to do it. You must listen and follow directions. You must fill out paperwork. Luckily, I happened to sit next to Ed Mead, who described himself as "one of those 60-year-old bachelors with nothing to do" every Saturday and Sunday - except drive 100 miles to Fort McDowell because it offers the biggest prizes. He hovered over my bingo card and "dobbed" all the numbers I missed. Dobbing is marking your bingo card, and the word comes from the name of the fat ink pen you must use.


I never did win, but I became an expert at sensing when somebody else was about to. A low murmur starts to circulate throughout the hall and the "bingo ambassadors' prowling the aisles with whistles in their mouths pick up the pace. Then someone yells, "Bingo!" The whistle blows and a communal "awwhhh" rises up from the losers.


Before we left, Ed showed me his "mad dobber" pen, which depicts a crazy-looking old man with hands moving so fast, they're blurred. Above his head, the bubble says, "Life is a game, but bingo is serious."


"E.M.