games, neuroscience, and historical trauma--they sound like an odd
trio but collectively may provide answers to problems across Indian
country. Educators, researchers, and youngsters from Alberta, Saskatchewan,
the western U.S. and Alaska, even as far away as Delhi, India gathered
at the First International Traditional Native Games Conference in
Pablo, Montana on June 26-28.
Gregory Cajete, Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo and director of
Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, has authored
five books dealing with Native games. "We see young children as
they're growing up, especially the first few years of their life.
Everything is play. The human propensity to be athletic is a very
integral part of natural forms of education. It's also the way the
Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University,
has studied games and their effect on the brain. "The most sophisticated
emotion built into our brains is play," he said. "If we take play
out of the lives of our children we will have children that cannot
grow up to be normal, vibrant, positive human beings that respect
others and know how to interact with them. Play is the bridge to
a full human life."
The third element, historical trauma, is well documented among
Indigenous Peoples. Native Americans have been subjected to it in
many ways, including the period of boarding schools that altered
tribal life--and tribal games. "Early on Native games were targeted
to erase them," Cajete said. "If you're trying to subjugate a people
you begin to go for those institutions that bring people together
and have an influence in terms of how well they can be controlled.
Native games were the focus of many agents at that time."
loss of games at boarding schools was illustrated when 17 elders
from the Blackfeet Nation were invited to watch as youngsters took
part in some games, and to offer comments as tribal protocol dictates.
In some cases the youngsters knew much more about the games than
did the elders, most of whom had spent time in boarding schools
during their early years.
Recovering and restoring those traditional games, getting them
reintroduced in Native communities and in schools, is the goal of
the International Traditional Games Society, hosts of the conference.
Young people, teens and pre-teens, came to the conference to
learn and to compete in various games. Jeremy Red Eagle, Sioux,
is a board member of the International Traditional Games Society.
He brought 10 young people with him from Helena, Montana. "We focus
on the positive things: our language, our ceremonies and culture,
our song and dance-and our games." Then Red Eagle commented on two
weeks of traveling with these young people and how they were sticking
together without fighting or arguments. "These games are the foundation
of what started our youth program. These kids will be leaders in
Many games are played on a field while many others can be played
in a classroom or at home. Most are quite simple and can be played
with materials readily available: rocks, limbs, sticks, balls of
buckskin or yarn. The list goes on. Some are games of skill or endurance
while others may be of intuition.
seemed to be the game of choice but shinney was not far behind.
Double ball is another favorite, somewhat similar to the other two
but using straight sticks with double balls made of two stuffed
pouches and joined together by a short band, usually of tanned buckskin.
Nicole Johnston, Inupiaq, chairs the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
She brought two young athletes to the conference to demonstrate
games played in the far north. She is also a record holder in the
women's two-foot high kick. Their games are all designed for survival
in the arctic north and thus very different from those which originated
The youth who participated in the games were honored at the
final ceremony. Gifts were distributed including sets for shinney
and double ball The visitors from Alaska gave gifts of an Indian
stick pull stick and a kick-ball to the host organization.