Inuit Culture

Makkuktut Sangitilirput

Traditional Inuit Games

Traditional games have a long history in the Inuit culture. In the old days, people had to be fit, working outside in all weather and in extreme cold. Survival on the land required a great deal of endurance. People also had to be able to withstand pain and hardship, sometimes under conditions of starvation. They had to be able to ignore pain and continue with whatever they were doing, no matter what the circumstances. A keen eye, good depth perception and ability to hit a moving target were all important in terms of survival.

Some games were targetting games, with people trying to hit a small target made of sealskin and shaped like a seal. In the old days this was suspended from the roof of an iglu or held by hand when the games were played outdoors. The target is placed highest for the one foot high kick, and a bit lower for the two foot high kick. It is lowered still more for the one arm reach.

Children learned the games by observation, watching adults or older children play, and then mimicking them. Young people would encourage each other. Competition was important, but sharing the fun and laughing together when someone missed was also important. In the past, the games were played almost entirely by boys and young men, but today, many girls are taking up the sports and competing very skillfully.

Today, there is much more teaching and coaching. Although arctic sports athletes compete against each other, as opposed to other sports, they are always helping and encouraging each other. If one misses a target, the others are supportive and sympathetic. Competition is important, but achieving personal goals is far more important.

Traditional games are often played on a hard floor, like in a gym, and no mats are used. Injuries are more likely – it is easy to dislocate a finger or thumb, or bruise yourself seriously by falling. And the competition lasts several days, so injuries must be avoided.

Stretching exercises are important before doing some of these games. Some competitors use shoes and some do not. If you do these games on a hard floor, it is best to use shoes.

A word of caution. Athletes considering doing these games should discuss them with others skilled in the sports before trying this, or get some coaching from those who train Nunavut athletes. Remember, part of the history of these games involved endurance of pain, and ablilty to test the limits of the body. If your muscles are not trained and you do not understand the balance techniques, you could be injured. Observe an actual contest and talk to our athletes before doing this!

Makkuktut Sangitiktilirput athletes have put on a number of demonstrations in Nunavut , and in the South. Several did demonstrations at the Rural Forum 2004 in Brandon , Manitoba . These so impressed their audiences that they have been invited back in 2005, and offered the main stage where they will perform before thousands of guests and for television cameras as well.

One foot high kick

In this game, a small target made of sealskin in the shape of a little seal is suspended at various heights from a pylon support. Heights are adjusted according to the height and skill of the competitor, starting at a lower setting and being raised as the contest proceeds.

Contestants all begin with stretching exercises, which prepare their muscles for maximum efficiency, and help them concentrate fully.

Each steps up and leaps at the target. The contestant takes off on both feet – both feet must be off the ground when the one foot contacts the target. He brings the kicking foot up to touch the target, and then must land on the same foot he used to touch the target. He must maintain balance and not fall. The arms are used for balance but cannot touch any part of the target. In turn, each contestant has three tries at the target in sequence with other athletes. The target is gradually raised, until only one can still touch it. That athlete is considered the winner.

Two foot high kick

This kick is more difficult than the one foot high kick. A small sealskin target in the shape of a seal is also used in this game. This target is suspended from a framework, and raised as the contest proceeds.

After essential stretching exercises, each athlete steps up to the starting point and takes off from both feet, bringing the feet up together, precisely aligned, to touch the target. Both feet must touch the target – touching it with one foot is not enough. Often, powder is used on the target to demonstrate that it actually has been touched. The contestant must land on both feet and remain in balance. The arms are “windmilled” to maintain balance, and achieve greater height in the leap.

As in the other games, each contestant has three tries at each level, and the target is gradually moved upward until all but one contestant has been eliminated.

One arm reach

In this game, the athlete must balance the whole body on his hands. The support arm (in right-handed athletes, this is the left arm) is braced against the side under the centre of gravity, elbow bent. This arm must support and balance the body while the reach is made. The feet must be off the ground. The reaching hand supports the body as the legs are raised, and when all is in balance, the athlete balances on one hand and reaches up at the suspended target with the non-support hand (usually the right hand in right-handed people). The feet must not touch the ground, and must remain off the ground until the reaching arm is back in place on the ground. The athlete must remain in balance throughout. Each athlete gets three tries at each level, and the target is gradually raised until all contestants except one have been eliminated.

Caution must be used in this game, as it is possible to dislocate the thumb due to putting too much weight on the supporting hand too quickly. Training by a skilled athlete is highly recommended.