The Traditional Games workshop offers an interactive way for visiting school groups to learn about Canada’s First Nation traditional games. Weather permitting, we play Inuit games, lacrosse, and double ball outside with small groups. It’s an active and hands-on opportunity to teach students about traditional games.
Lacrosse has a long history in Canada, and many variations of this game have been played around the continent. Lacrosse as we understand it today first developed in this region of Canada, by the Iroquois people, known in their language as dehonchigwiis. It is a game that was played among the Six Nations Confederacy and is an important part of Iroquois culture. It was typically played by men, though both men and women participated in the celebrations and rituals surrounding it. Different forms of lacrosse are believed to have emerged as early as the 12th century, long before the arrival of Europeans to North America. It is typically played with racquets made out of wood, connected to pouches (traditionally made out of hide), which players use to toss a ball (traditionally made with deerskin, now with rubber) back and forth in order to score on the opposing team’s goal. Lacrosse games could involve mass amounts of people, with hundreds of players on a field that could be a mile long. Lacrosse occupies an important place in Iroquois culture, as it is a gift from the Creator, and is used to give thanks to the gods and to provide the Creator with entertainment. While it is a game that requires physical fitness and aggression, it is ultimately a celebration of the Creator’s gifts, and is also used to encourage healing and medicine. Lacrosse was taught to European settlers when they arrived, and it was given the name lacrosse by French settlers, in reference to the sticks looking like Bishop croziers. The matches became much smaller over time, and it eventually became Canada’s official sport, receiving some popularity internationally. Lacrosse tournaments continue today, run by the Canadian Lacrosse Association, as well by the Iroquois Nationals, a First Nations lead organization founded in 1983 that carries out lacrosse tournaments in the spirit of playing for enjoyment, healing, and thankfulness.
We Pitisowewepahikan, or double ball, is another prominent sport played among First Nations peoples in North America, specifically in the prairies and in what is now the Eastern United States. It is a physically demanding game that was traditionally only played by women, though over time it was played by both genders. Similar in some ways to lacrosse, this game is played with long sticks and two balls tied together. The goal of the game was to loop the balls onto the stick and pass them between the players until it is sent through the opposing team’s goal post. This game could be played with as many as six to one hundred players, with variations of the game among different groups. The Plains Cree tended to use a stick and double ball made from deerskin around buffalo hair held together with a leather thong, while the Chippewa used lather bags filled with sand. This is considered to be a game of skill, and like many others is was played in large gatherings during times of celebration.
There are a number of games played by the Inuit, which were used to encourage and build up agility, strength and endurance to survive in the harsh landscape. They also served the purpose of being entertaining and to keep spirits up during long periods of cold and darkness in the winter, especially if a family was experiencing a food shortage. For example, games such as the owl hop, in which a person hops on one leg for as long as they can, were fun and built up strength and patience for hunting.