Many Native people participate daily in sporting events
organized and run primarily by non-Natives. However,
Native athletes also participate in a variety of competitions that are organized by Native people. This “Native”
sport system includes both “traditional” sports competitions and “All-Native” competitions.
Canada and the United States enacted laws in the late
1800s that outlawed certain “traditional” cultural practices. For example, the Potlatch and the Sun Dance were
banned, two ceremonies that were very important rituals in Native culture.
Native athletes were, at times, restricted from participating in “mainstream” sport as well. As an example, in 1880 the National Amateur Lacrosse Association
in Canada categorized all Native athletes as “professionals,”thus excluding them from participating in amateur lacrosse competitions. This occurred even
though Native participants had been actively involved
in lacrosse competitions with non-Native athletes up to
that point, and it was Native Americans who had first
introduced non-Natives to the game of lacrosse.
Native people continue to fight for their right to
self-determination. This battle pertains to sport as
well. Native-controlled sport competitions provide an
opportunity for Native athletes to hone and demonstrate sporting skills. However, these competitions also
provide a place where Native people can gather, visit
with their relatives and friends, compare life experiences, recollect traditional sporting activities, avoid
racist treatment from non-Natives, and foster panaboriginality—a united, proud awareness of being
Traditional Sports Competitions
Several competitions involving traditional Native activities exist in North America. These events all help revive interest in traditional Native sports and promote
community spirit and pride in being Native. Perhaps
the oldest competition is the powwow, a summer gathering many centuries old. The contemporary powwow
had its origins in warrior organizations on the Plains
around the 1870s. Powwows almost died out by the
1930s, because of outside pressures on Natives to stop
participating in “traditional” cultural practices. However, this trend started to reverse as Native organizers
began to host powwows to honor the many Indian veterans who returned to their reservations from World
War II. Powwows increased in number and became
even more popular for Native people as cultural awareness and pride in being Native further increased during the 1960s civil rights movement.
Native organizers now offer over 100 powwows annually in North America, both on reservations and in
urban areas, with large money prizes available at the
major competitions. Some reserves hold “traditional”
powwows, which encourage the audience to dance for
fun and offer no competitive dancing for money. Native
participants of all ages compete in powwows, and both
Native and non-Native people attend as spectators.
While dancing is the primary focus of powwows, organizers can also include rodeos, hand games, running events, horse competitions, giveaways, parades, and
traditional foods and crafts.
Native people in the northern parts of North America have also created “traditional” sport competitions.
In Canada, the Northern Games and the Dene Games
have been in existence since the 1970s. Native organizers created the Northern Games as a weekend festival
of traditional Inuit (Eskimo) and Dene (Indian) games
involving Native participants from the Northwest and
Yukon Territories and Alaska.
Events planned by the organizers include primarily
Inuit activities, such as one- and two-foot high kick,
muskox push, blanket toss, one-hand reach, and mouth
pull. These events were originally only done by males,
although women now also compete. Female participants originally competed in the Good Woman contest,
which includes various activities performed by women
on the land, such as tea boiling, fire making, wood
chopping, bannock (frybread) making, seal and
muskrat skinning, and traditional sewing. Men now occasionally compete in this event. Judges award prizes
for both speed and the quality of the work done. Athletes have also participated in Dene traditional activities on occasion, such as hand games, Indian blanket
toss, pole push, stick pull, and the bow and arrow shoot.
The context of the Northern Games is in keeping
with “bush consciousness.” Organizers thus create a
competition where participation rather than excellence
is stressed,and where events begin and end according to
“Native time”—that is, when enough people have gathered to make the event possible. Daily activities rarely
begin before noon, and old-time dancing, as well as
some of the events, often carry on well after midnight.
Few spectators attend, as all individuals at the Northern
Games are encouraged to participate. Organizers often
choose judges just before the event, at which point the
designated judges decide on the rules for that event and
outline these guidelines to the participants.
The Dene Games were first held in 1977, when Native organizers in the community of Rae-Edzo (in the
Northwest Territories) created a summer festival focusing on a softball tournament. Teams from many of
the surrounding Native communities were invited to
attend. By 1981, organizers began including a few traditional Dene games in this festival, along with stick
gambling, a drum dance, and some water events. In
1984, a second Dene Games was begun by organizers
for communities farther north.
Two regional Dene Games competitions now occur
each summer, made up solely of traditional Dene
games. This competition, like the Northern Games, is
structured in keeping with “bush consciousness.” Organizers include events such as the bow and arrow
shoot, spear throw, ax throw, canoe races, hand games,
and the Good Woman Contest.Winning athletes are often given medals, although traditional items such as
mittens or a hand-painted paddle are also awarded on
A different group of Native people hosts competitions in a traditional winter activity—snow-snake.
Snow-snake was historically played widely across
North America; however, current competitions are held
primarily among the Iroquois in Ontario, Canada, and
in New York State. This competition involves sliding a
spearlike stick, about 3 meters (10 feet) long, as far as
possible along a flat, smooth surface (now an artificially created trough in the snow). Each team includes
a shiner, a thrower, and a marker. The shiner, who often
makes snow-snakes, is responsible for choosing the
proper snow-snake and wax for the snow conditions.
The thrower physically throws the snow-snake down
the track. The marker serves as an umpire, determining the final landing place of his team’s snow-snake.
Through these snow-snake competitions, as well as
through the powwows, the Northern Games, and the
Dene Games, Native people are thus successfully keeping alive, and enjoying, many of their traditional cultural activities.
All-Native Sporting Competitions
The All-Native sport system has been created by organizers to provide mainstream sports opportunities
specifically for Native athletes. Organizers of these
events, which are usually invitational, enforce a Native
participation base through race restrictions for competitors. For example, one All-Native bowling tournament required that participants be Indian or married
to an Indian. More restrictive conditions were set for a
1980 Women’s Fast Pitch National Championship,
which required that players must be at least one-quarter Indian in order to compete. Organizers for the Little
Native Hockey League were the most selective, insisting
that participants must have a federal band number to
These All-Native sports events tend to be annual
tournaments held at the inter-reserve, provincial or
state, national, or North American levels. Mainstream
sports, such as golf, bowling, basketball, hockey, fastball, tennis, and lacrosse, are the focus of these tournaments. All-Native international sporting exchanges
also occur with other countries, such as Australia and
New Zealand. In such cases a Native team (from
Canada, for example) goes to Australia to compete with
aboriginal teams in that country.
A group of Native leaders from Alberta, Canada, organized the first North American Indigenous Games,
which were held in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1990. These
games, which are restricted to persons of Native heritage, involve athletes from both Canada and the United
States. Teams from various provinces and states compete. Mainstream sports are the focus of this competition. Events at the 1993 games included archery, badminton, baseball, basketball, box lacrosse, boxing,
canoeing, golfing, rifle shooting, soccer, softball, swimming, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling.
Through these Indigenous Games, as well as the AllNative competitions and the international sporting exchanges, athletes can improve their skills in mainstream sports in a supportive context. Participants
return home having “experienced the competition,
learned about other Aboriginal cultures, made new
friends and broadened their own horizons.”
Bibliography: Oxendine, Joseph. (1988) American Indian
Sports Heritage. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Roberts, Chris. (1992) Powwow Country. Helena, MT:
American and World Geographic Publishing.“The North
American Indigenous Games.”(1993) Native Journal (August/September): 26.
Many Native people participate daily in sporting events