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Healing Communities: Extending a Healing Hand, Then and Now

Native Games: Survival, Strength, and Sport

Native games are more than just games. They build body and spirit through exercise and are played by all age groups—children, youth, and adults. Many games have roots in ancestral tests of strength and sport that reinforced group cooperation and sharpened survival skills in often hostile environments. For warriors, the games helped maintain their readiness and combat skills between times of war.

Today, games are as important as ever. The gradual shift to a more sedentary lifestyle has highlighted the need to reawaken interest in physical activity, especially among Native youth. Promoting games and sports is an important part of improving the health and well-being of Native populations.


Stickball, a Native game that is the forerunner of lacrosse, can be played by a large number of players, sometimes involving entire tribal communities. It is especially popular among Southeastern Indians, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. In stickball, both teams must move the ball down the field using only their sticks—no touching or throwing of the ball is allowed. Points are scored by hitting the opposing team’s goal posts with the ball. The Choctaw hold an annual World Stickball Championship as part of the Choctaw Indian Fair.

Iditarod and Alaska Native Games

For Alaska Natives, the tradition of ancestral games is as strong as ever. Most famous is the Iditarod dog sled race, a highly competitive endurance sport that promotes survival skills in a challenging Arctic environment. Alaska Native John Baker of Kotzebue won the 2011 Iditarod in record-breaking time.

At annual events such as Alaska Native Youth Games and the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, children and adults test their strength, endurance, and agility in traditional contests such as the high kick, in which competitors kick balls suspended at head level or higher. As of 2011, the world record was 7’ 10” for men, and 6’ 1” for women. Other more conventional sports, such as basketball and cribbage, are also important to Native communities, young and old, especially during the long winters.

Native Hawaiian Sports: At Sea and on Land

Hawai‘i is justly famous for its water sports of canoeing, surfboarding, and swimming. Canoe and paddling clubs attract large numbers of members of all ages. Events range from outrigger canoe races on weekends to sea-going voyages in traditional double-hulled canoes such as the Hōkūle‘a. The iconic Hawaiian sport of surfboarding was a tradition that was nearly lost by the turn of the 20th century. It was revived by the Native Hawaiian sportsman Duke Kahanamoku, who in three successive Olympics also won medals in swimming. Kahanamoku is revered in Hawai‘i, with his statue prominently located on Waik?k? Beach, Honolulu.

Holua sleds

A land-based counterpart to the surfboard is the Papa Holua sled, which riders use to slide down hilly slopes. Early Hawaiian warriors honed their physical skills and endurance on these narrow sleds. Like surfboarding, sledding was suppressed by missionaries, but today it is a popular “extreme sport” in Hawai‘i.

Olympic Gold for Native Athletes

Many Native Americans have competed in the Olympic Games, and several have taken home the gold. In 1912, Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku won a gold medal in swimming, and Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, won gold in the pentathlon and decathlon. More recent medalists are Billy Mills, Lakota, gold in distance running and Billy Kidd, Abenaki, silver and bronze in downhill skiing. Joe Tompkins, Tlingit, and U.S. Paralympian, gold medaled in downhill skiing in the 2005 and 2010 Paralympic World Cup.