Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Inuit games

Inuit games are traditional activities and sports enjoyed across all circumpolar countries, including Canada, the United States, Greenland and Russia. These games broadly serve two main purposes: survival and recreation or celebration. The circumpolar Arctic and Subarctic are regions of extreme conditions with a harsh climate, stunted vegetation, long winters and extended periods of darkness. Only the strongest wildlife thrives in this environment, and the people who live as hunter-gatherers have to be more than a match for the harsh environment to survive. Inuit games serve to keep people mentally tough and physically healthy. The games help build strength, cultivate endurance and develop agility.

Pushing and pulling games focus on developing strength in different parts of the body in preparation for hunting. Hunters require great upper body strength for spearing polar bears, pulling heavy animals (seals, walruses and whales) out of the water and even wrestling caribou or wolves. Many games require a competitor and are useful not only in building strength, but in identifying the strongest hunters and in creating community bonds.

Inuit hunters require great endurance to be successful in hunting migrating animals. The hunt could last for days, with hunters walking great distances in search of migratory animals in the vast wilderness. Hunters stand hunched over a seal hole for up to 12 hours in perfect stillness to avoid disturbing the waters and scaring away seals coming up for air. To endure the rigours of this lifestyle, Inuit practise endurance games. These games include the knuckle hop, airplane planking, foot racing and various hopping games. Each game requires balance and control and some closely mimic the skills necessary to be a successful hunter.

Nunavut Sivuniqsavut students Bertrum Elatiak and Marcus Kokak demonstrate the high kick at an event on Parliament Hill.
Nunavut Sivuniqsavut students Bertrum Elatiak and Marcus Kokak demonstrate the high kick at an event on Parliament Hill.

The games help build strength, cultivate endurance and develop agility.

Some games, like high kick or other reaching games, are designed to strengthen joints and increase flexibility. These activities improve agility for chasing wolves, polar bears and caribou across uneven terrain while preventing sprains and injuries. Should a hunter suffer any injury, no matter the severity, the chances of successful hunts will become much more limited and the survival of the family or village will be at stake. Games like the harpoon throw and nugluktaq improve accuracy, while skipping and hopping games improve balance.

Inuit games are also an essential element in recreation and celebration, alongside singing, drum-dancing and storytelling. Games are played at many events and occasions, such as celebrations to mark the return of the sun after a month of winter darkness, a young hunter’s first kill, the birth of a new baby, the death of a family member or community member, or the return of a successful hunting party.

Inuit games continue to play a vital role in today’s society. Athletes continue to practise, teach and compete in Inuit games to keep the memories of ancestors alive and to ensure the survival of Inuit culture and tradition. International Inuit games competitions such as the Arctic Winter Games and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics are important venues for athletes to meet in the spirit of competition and cultural interchange. Many Inuit share a deep pride in their history and ancestry and have a deep understanding of the importance of teaching traditional knowledge to future generations. Much of the knowledge of these practices continues to be translated informally through friends, family, coaches and teammates and from Elders. Even as new technologies allow for knowledge sharing across the globe, many Inuit prefer to learn through traditional oral means and through demonstration.

Randy Tootoo Tanuyak performs the swing kick.
Randy Tootoo Tanuyak performs the swing kick.

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