Sports

The Inuit have created many unique sports and games over the centuries, and many traditional games and sports continue to be a source of entertainment and physical fitness in the Arctic today.  These sports and games build endurance and strength, and in the past were also used to develop skills essential to Arctic survival.

According to the Northern Games Society of Inuvik, Northern Games generally fit into four categories: kicking games, balance games, endurance games, and power games (there are also a couple of unique pastimes such as the Blanket Toss which do not fall into these groupings). A common example of a kicking game is the “One-Foot High Kick,” a game in which the player springs off the ground to kick a target in the air, landing on the same foot he/she took off from.  Each round, the target is raised by two inches, and contestants have three attempts to hit the target (traditionally a small piece of bone or patch of fur) with their foot.

“One-Foot High Kick" and “One-Hand Reach”

“One-Foot High Kick” and “One-Hand Reach”

A balance game combines strength and coordination while testing a player’s balance.  The “One-Hand Reach,” for example, is a sport in which a player balances the weight of their entire body on one hand.  Feet are raised off the ground, and the other hand reaches toward a target hanging above the m. The contestant who can reach the greatest height is declared the winner. Endurance games test physical abilities, but also often assess a player’s ability to endure physical pain. The “Knuckle Hop,” for example, requires the player to keep their body parallel to the floor, while raising himself/herself slightly above the ground by the knuckles.

“Knuckle-Hop”

“Knuckle-Hop”

The player makes fists, and rises to his or her toes, while hopping forward.  The game is lost when the player is too tired to continue. The contestant who covers the greatest distance is considered the winner. A power game incorporates elements of the endurance games, while competitors compete against each other one-on-one.  One of the more unique games in this category is the “Ear Pull” or “Ear Tug.” This is a type of tug-of-war game that is distinctive to Inuit culture.  During the game, competitors fasten rope or string behind their ears, and pull backward until one competitor gives up.

Two contestants battling in the “Ear Pull”

Two contestants battling in the “Ear Pull”

Many other games and sports are also played in the Arctic, including puzzles, juggling games, and intellectual games similar to Tic-Tac-Toe.  Today, many sports and games played in southern Canada are also practiced in the North.  Inuit and Aboriginal populations continue to practice more traditional games, however, in an effort to preserve cultural traditions important to their society. Every four years, transarctic games known as the Arctic Winter Games are held. Like the Olympic Games, they are held in different countries each time and they draw participants from all the circumpolar regions. The Arctic Winter Games include both traditional and modern games and sports. Specific games and their descriptions can be found at the Northern Games Society website (http://www.northerngames.org/games/).

Watch a full-length, online documentary entitled “Games of the North: Playing for Survival” from PBS: