Origins & Connections to Sport

The Arctic Winter Games (AWG), North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), and the World Indigenous Games are unique sporting events because they bring together sports and culture to celebrate Indigenous cultures that promote reconciliation through sport.

Arctic Winter Games

At the first-ever Canada Winter Games in 1967 at Quebec City, officials from the Yukon and the Northwest Territories realized the unique challenges faced by Northern athletes. They proposed a winter games competition where athletes from the circumpolar North could compete on their own terms. Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Alaska founded the Arctic Winter Games Corporation (AWGC) in January 1968. The Arctic Winter Games are truly an international and cross-cultural event. Events are open to competitors from circumpolar regions of the world located north of the 55th parallel such as: Nunavut, Northern Alberta, Northern Alaska, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and others. The many cultures represented at the AWG can be seen in the ceremonies, dances, and music that are part of the experience. 

Competitors at the Arctic Winter Games participate in the Airplane Carry event, a traditional strength game. Courtesy of Meika McDonald

The first-ever Arctic Winter Games were held in 1970 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. The AWG, held every two years, includes many traditional Inuit Games and Dene Games. Some of the traditional Inuit games are: Knuckle Hop, One Foot High Kick, Two Foot High Kick, and Blanket Toss. Some of the traditional Dene Games are: Stick Pull, Finger Pull, Snow Snake, Pole Push, and Hand Games. Most of the Inuit Games and Dene Games celebrate traditional values and customs. Most of the traditional games showcased in the AWG are individual, self-testing games which hold cultural significance and were initially developed not only for competition but for developing the skills required to live off the land.

A competitor participates in the Dene Snowsnake event, a modern sport based off of traditional caribou hunting practices. Courtesy of Janet Vreeman

Top athletes in traditional games and in the mainstream sports such as volleyball, ice hockey, and curling are awarded gold, silver, and bronze ulus. The ulu, a traditional knife used by the Inuit and is the chosen design of the Arctic Winter Games medals because it reflects Northern lifestyles and traditions. It also represents the symbolic value of winning an event for the winner’s home community.

The ulu, a traditional knife that is used by the Inuit for living on the land, is the chosen design of the Arctic Winter Games medals because it reflects Northern lifestyles and traditions. Courtesy of Patti-Kay Hamilton

The Arctic Winter Games are a celebration of sports, and culture that create awareness on cultural diversity. These Games are both a sport competition and a cultural festival with competitors from the circumpolar regions. In 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the Arctic Winter Games were scheduled to be held in Whitehorse with over 2,000 athletes, but were cancelled due to COVID-19.

Competitors participate in the Snowshoe Running event at the Arctic Winter Games. Courtesy of Patti-Kay Hamilton
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Medal from the first 2015 World Indigenous Games held in Palmas, Brazil. The plastic vessel on the bottom contains a drop of water from the Amazon River, while the engraved wood represents the Amazon rainforest. Courtesy of Chief Wilton Littlechild

North American Indigenous Games

By 1977, the Arctic Winter Games were well on their way to becoming a staple on the world sporting calendar. However, Chief Wilton Littlechild had a bigger dream. He wanted to create a multi-sport event that would celebrate the world’s many Indigenous cultures. He proposed an international Indigenous Games event that would include a strong cultural component. Chief Littlechild’s idea for the World Indigenous Games was passed unanimously at the 1977 Annual Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Sweden. His dream was not realized until nearly forty years later. In between this time regional events such as the North American Indigenous Games took place.

Chief Wilton Littlechild at the 2018 Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame Induction Festival. Courtesy of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

The first North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) were held in Edmonton, Alberta in 1990 featuring 3000 athletes from all over Canada and from the U.S. The NAIG have taken place in both Canadian and American cities with thousands of athletes taking part in several mainstream and traditional sports, such as swimming, rifle shooting, canoeing, and lacrosse. The NAIG also offers an opportunity for cultural exchanges and celebrations. The cultural festival and Indigenous marketplace at the NAIG provide opportunities for athletes, volunteers, and the public to learn and celebrate the cultures of various Indigenous communities.

Medals awarded at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in previous years. The next NAIG Games are scheduled for 2023 in Halifax. Courtesy of Chief Wilton Littlechild

Determined to fulfil her goal and get into the University of Saskatchewan to study physical education in the fall of

It’s a beautiful celebration of culture, music, sport, dance in the spirit of competition,” said Kevin Sandy, CEO of 2020 NAIG. “It is also infused with the cultural side of it. That’s really what the Games represent to me. “The spirit and beauty of who we are as Indigenous People from across the world.”[1]

Performers at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto. Deyhontsigwa’ehs (lacrosse) is a sport that was given to the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, Seneca, and Cayuga) by the Creator, and therefore is referred to as the Creator’s Game by many Indigenous Peoples. CP13246756, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

The thirtieth anniversary of the North American Indigenous Games was scheduled for July 2020 in Halifax on Mi’kma’ki territory, with 5000 expected participants competing in 17 sports, but were cancelled due to COVID-19.

Dancers perform the Grass Dance at the opening ceremonies of the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto. CP13246781, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

[1] https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/countdown-for-north-american-indigenous-games-starts-in-halifax/

World Indigenous Games

It took nearly forty years for Chief Wilton Littlechild’s dream of the World Indigenous Games to become a reality, but it was worth the wait. In 2015, the first World Indigenous Games were held in Palmas, Brazil. Over 2000 Indigenous athletes representing over 30 countries competed in a mix of mainstream sports and traditional Indigenous games. The second World Indigenous Games were held in Treaty 6 Territory in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 2017.

Athletes compete at the first World Indigenous Games in Brazil in 2015. Courtesy of Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images, 494530208

Participants learned about sports and cultural diversity as the World Indigenous Games are a celebration of life through sports and culture because they bring together Indigenous Peoples from all over the world. The World Indigenous Games also offer opportunities to discuss human rights, environmental issues, and the challenges facing Indigenous youth which are shared through lecture series and discussion forums.

Beaded pendant commemorating the 2016 World Indigenous Games held on Treaty 6 Territory in Alberta. Courtesy of Chief Wilton Littlechild

The World Indigenous Games promote positive, healthy lifestyles for Indigenous Peoples, through sports, recreation and cultural programs. These Games also promote peace and reconciliation by celebrating passion and pride for sports, traditions, and culture.

The three Games described above are important because they combine sports with the physical, social, cultural, and spiritual significance to uplift communities and celebrate their strengths.

A dancer performs the Fancy Shawl Dance at the opening ceremonies of the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto. CP13246961, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch