Games of the North

About This Learning Center

About This Learning Center

This learning center is based on an educational unit written by Richard Goldstein for the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It depicts ten indigenous games from the Far North that were traditionally played within and between villages to test the skill, strength, and endurance of the people whose lives depended on hunting and gathering.

Although these games are competitive, there is a spirit of cooperation and community that lies at their heart. Please enjoy exploring the physical skills shown in these games while deepening your understanding of the Native people and the richness of their cultures.

Games of the North Film

(To order Games of the North, which will be available for puchase in the spring of 2011, visit www.pbs.org)

This Learning Center can accompanies a film, Games of the North, produced by Starseed Media, which will debut on PBS in the spring of 2011.

Teachers should show the film before teaching the games if at all possible.

The film will be helpful for students even if their teacher does not teach the unit, since it illustrates some techniques that will be helpful in learning the games.

Film Synopsis

Four athletes travel throughout Alaska competing in the ancestral indigenous games of strength, skill, and endurance. Acrobatic and explosive, these sports are vital for survival in the frigid Arctic. As waves of change sweep across their traditional lands, the competitors realize the games' role is more important than ever.

Major Competitions

The intense and continuing interest in the Games over the last 50 years has provided the impetus for three different organizations to establish statewide and international competitions.

World Eskimo Indian Olympics (W.E.I.O.)

An annual competition since 1961, WEIO draws contestants and dance groups from across Alaska and northern communities in Canada in a five-day celebration of games and events.

International Arctic Winter Games

Held every second winter since 1970 in a different circumpolar host nation, this international Olympic event draws athletes from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Finland, Norway and Russia.

Native Youth Olympics

This annual spring highlight for Alaska high school students has been held since 1971. In 2008, more than 30 teams from every corner of the state journeyed to Anchorage to compete. There are no ethnic restrictions on competing in NYO.

Enduring Understandings

Enduring Understandings

The traditional competitions that are now held in the Far North originally taught survival skills. Today those same competitions teach life skills while grounding youth in Alaska's indigenous cultures. 

Students will:

1. LEARN ten different indigenous games which originally helped teach survival skills for life in the Arctic.

2. EXPLORE the concepts of preserving traditions and different ways of sharing and passing on knowledge to others.

3. ANALYZE the connection between the survival skills of the indigenous people of the Far North and students' own challenges.

4. APPLY the concepts of survival and fortitude to their own lives.

What good was a seal spotted far away on the ice at break-up if the hunter, needing to get close, lacked the agility, timing and strength to jump from one ice floe to another?

Overview, Time and Materials

Overview, Time and Materials

The games are physically demanding and can help students develop great agility, strength, endurance, and balance, but their importance transcends the physical. They promote mental focus, confidence, and toughness while embodying Iñupiaq values of cooperation, self-reliance, and community. The games can involve participants of every ethnic orgin and can work to change both attitudes and behavior in students anywhere.

Time required

The time required to teach this Learning Center will depend on whether students are being introduced to the games or are familiar with how to play. After the teacher has modeled each game, time should be allotted for students to practice and ask questions. Each game should take between 15-30 minutes depending on class size. Students can repeat the games for further practice.

Classroom Materials

Games of the North Video. Order the complete video, available beginning in the spring of 2011, from www.pbs.org.

Eskimo Stick Pull: A stick or dowel, approximately 1.25 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. A small area of the floor. A mat for the contestants to sit on is optional.

Alaska High Kick: Some sort of target (traditionally, a small 4 to 5-inch handmade seal skin ball was used). A structure that is tall enough to suspend the target, such as a basketball backboard. A tie off point for the string that allows for the height of the target to be easily adjusted. (These same materials will be needed for the One-oot High Kick and the Two-Foot High Kick as well.)

Kneel Jump: A tape measure. Open floor space with a starting stripe.

Scissor Broad Jump: No equipment is needed other than space in a gym or room to perform the game.

Leg Wrestle: A small floor space. A mat for the contestants to lie on.

One-Foot High Kick: See directions for the Alaska High Kick

Two-Foot High Kick: See directions for the Alaska High Kick

Wrist Carry: A round stick or dowel 48 inches long and 1 and 5/16 inches in diameter. The stick is marked with a line the long way so judges can watch for twisting (not allowed). A fairly large, measured floor space. A watch. A start line.

Finger Pull: A mat for the contestants to sit on is optional.

Seal Hop: A starting stripe and a turning stripe. A large floor space. A tape measure.

"No matter how much our circumstances change, I hope our people will always stop from time to time to do the same--renew the bonds that connect us across five hundred generations." -Willie Hensley, Iñupiaq Leader

Background Information

Background Information

The following is taken from the Alaska Native Heritage Center's Staff Manual. For more information, visit its website, www.alaskanative.net.

Alaska is a land of many Native peoples. The Athabascan, Iñupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Central Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Unangax (Aleut), Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Alaska live in cities, towns and villages separated by vast distances, each in a unique geographical region. Although they practice different languages, creeds, and philosophies, Alaska Natives share many common goals and values.

For thousands of years and to this day, the basic tenets of Native traditions have sustained Alaska Native people. A wealth of history, wisdom, and knowledge passes from generation to generation, ensuring survival through the challenges of every age. Today Native people face rapid change through technological advances, a mixed cash and subsistence economy system, and a dominant popular culture imported from the Lower 48. In the past we have dealt with issues such as disease, rapid loss of cultural identity, substance abuse, and criminal activity. However, one of the basic strengths of all indigenous peoples is adaptability. The strength of traditions and the determination of today’s Alaska Natives will overcome these obstacles.

The Iñupiaq People

The Iñupiaq people, the authors of many of the games described here, call themselves “The Real People,” and live in a region that stretches from Norton Sound along Alaska's western coast to the northern Canadian border and beyond. Their traditional territory also extends inland to the Brooks Range.

In this severe Arctic climate, cooperation is critical to survival. In the past and today, people worked together in groups related by kinship and marriage. A senior hunter and his wife led each family group of three or four generations. It was his responsibility to distribute the food that his crew harvested.

Traditional subsistence patterns depended upon season and location. Spring and fall whale hunts still occur as coastal and inland villagers respond to seasonal migration patterns. The hunters also take seals during this time.

The rivers and the sea also provide fish and crab. A spring herring harvest is followed by pink and chum salmon runs in late summer and early fall. Crab is harvested in the fall and winter and sheefish and whitefish are caught through the ice.

These traditional subsistence patterns led to the development of a complex tool kit. A sophisticated system of weapons and tools was developed for hunting the bowhead whale. The system included harpoons with toggle heads, lances, lines and seal bladder, and seal skin float.

The Iñupiat were some of the last Native groups to encounter Europeans, with no sustained contact until the arrival of Yankee whalers in the 1850s. The adaptability and competitive spirit of these cultures carried them through change while helping them retain traditional values.

The Games

Alaska Native cultures have flourished in an intensely hostile environment. Survival was a daily struggle with the elements, and was sustained by a shared sense of community. The games became a vital activity that kept the community together, at the same time strengthing the mind, body, and spirit of each participant.

The subsistence way of life depended not only on the abundance of game, fish or berries, but on physical, mental, and spiritual skills of the hunter-gatherers. What good ws a seal spotted far away on the ice at break-up if the hunter, needing to get close, lacked the agility, timing and strength to jump from one ice floe to another? What good was a moose taken by a band of hunters who were twenty miles from their village if they lacked the powerful strength and endurance to haul the carcass home?

These hunters needed to be disciplined physically as well as mentally in order to survive in an unforgiving environment and to often endure great pain and privation. In every season they were tested. Their skills, or lack of them, spelled the difference between life and death for themselves, their families, or even for their villages. Therefore, the people of the Arctic and subarctic continually practiced the survival skills they needed.

They developed dozens of games that could be played in the confned spaces of their dwellings, many inspired by, and replacing the hunt. 

Classroom Activities and descriptions of the games

Classroom Activities and descriptions of the games

The games described here have been played for thousands of years in villages throughout the Arctic. 

These games are physically demanding and can help students develop great agility, strength, endurance, and balance. But their importance transcends the physical. They build mental focus, confidence, and toughness, while promoting the Native values of cooperation, self-reliance, and community. The Games can involve participants of every ethnic origin and can work to change both attitudes and behaviors in students anywhere.

For the Teacher

These games are appropriate for Physical Education teachers or for those who have the space and materials readily avaiable.

Day 1: Show the movie, Games of the North, to students before introducing and teaching the games. This will give students background knowledge of the indigenous people of the North and an understanding of the games' cultural roles.

Day 2: Introduce the Games. There are 10 games described in this Learning Center. To effectively introduce the activities the teacher must assess how his/ her class will learn best. Teaching strategies such as pairing students up with differing abilities so that they an assist one another, having rotating stations that allow students to continuously practice the games until they understand the techniques, and posting the steps of each games on the classroom walls are effective.

The Games

Game 1: Eskimo Stick Pull                                

Equipment Needed

A stick or dowel, approximately 1.25 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. A small area of the floor. A mat for the contestants to sit on is optional.

How To Play

  • Two athletes sit facing each other on the floor with the soles of their feet touching.
  • Knees are bent about 45 degrees
  • The stick is placed slightly above their toes and grasped by the athletes, with palms facing down.
  • One person's hands are on the inside and the other's hands are on the outside. All hands must be touching.
  • Once the pulling begins, athletes may not change their grip, nor may they jerk the stick.
  • Contestants use the strength of their legs, arms, and backs to attempt to either pull the stick out of their opponent's grip or raise their opponent off the ground and pull him over.
  • Spotters may be used during the competition. Spotters sit on the floor at right angles to the contestants and place their feet against the upper thighs of the athletes' sitting bodies and against the sides of their feet to keep the contestants from falling over sideways.
  • The winner of the competition is successful in ttwo out of three rounds. The winner of a round is given the same hand position for the next round.

Game 2: Alaska High Kick

Equipment Needed

A target such as a small sealskin ball; a structure that is tall enough to suspend the target, such as a basketball backboard. A tie for the string, that allows for the height of the target to be easily adjusted.

How to Play

  • The athlete sits on the floor below the target and grasps the sole or toes of one foot with the opposite hand. Right or left foot can be used for grasping.
  • The free hand is planted firmly on the floor for balance, and the body is raised off the floor balancing on the kicking foot and hand.
  • In the balanced position the player drives his/her hips and kicks the leg upward, springing into the air and aiming the foot of the kicking leg toward the target.
  • Athletes must not release the grip on their foot.
  • Athletes must jump, kick and land on the same leg while the anchor hand supports the body. While performing the kick, no other body parts may touch the ground.
  • After landing, the athlete may hop to retain balance, but hopping before takeoff, letting go of the foot, losing balance after landing, or twisting over, will disqualify the kick.
  • Do not use a mat with this game, as it will not be as stable as the floor.
  • Three attempts are allowed at each height. The athlete who kicks the target at the highest height is the winner.

Game 3: Kneel Jump

This is a game of agility and explosive strength. Hunters require lightening quick reflexes to survive in the event of an ice break-up. The leg strength needed to do well in the kneel jump is also required to lift heavy game such as seal, whale, walrus or moose and carry it back home.

Equipment Needed

A tape measure. Open floor space with a starting stripe.

How to Play

  • The athlete kneels down on both knees and sits on his/her heels.
  • The top of the feet must be flat on the floor. The feet cannot be crossed over each other, and the athlete cannot be up on his/her toes before the jump.
  • The contestant is allowed to swing his/her arms back and forth and to move his/her body up and down in order to gain momentum for the leap forward.
  • The athlete's hands cannot touch the floor.
  • The athlete jumps out as far as possible, and must land on both feet without falling or without any other part of the body touching the floor.
  • The athlete will scratch if he/she falls back or if one of the landing feet slides.
  • Measurement is taken from the start line to the rear heel.
  • Contestants are given three jumps.
  • The winner is the athlete who jumps the farthest from the starting line.
  • Athletes may wear shoes but not knee pads.

Game 4: Scissor Broad Jump

The Scissor Broad Jump harkens back to the hunting of seal and walrus where Alaska Native hunters had to develop balance and quick reflexes in order to jump from one ice floe to another as the ice was shifting in the water.

How to Play

  • The Scissor Broad Jump consists of four continuous jumps.
  • An athlete begins by standing with both feet behind the starting line.
  • Jumping with both feet, land on foot A.
  • Continuing forward momentum, cross foot B behind the landing foot A, transferring weight to B and freeing foot A.
  • Springing off to foot B, land again on foot A carrying forward momentum and continuing the jump, landing solidly on both feet.
  • Continuous forward movement is required throughout.
  • Jumping off of one foot, a foot over the start line, falling at any time, not sticking the landing, or sliding the foot forward after landing will result in nullified jump.
  • The athlete is given three chances. The longest jump wins.

Game 5: Leg Wrestle

This is a game that focuses on leg strength and quickness. The Leg Wrestle was a means for hunters to develop the leg strength needed for carrying game back to the village or for hauling and dragging a seal or beluga whale out of the ocean.

Equipment Needed

A small floor space. A mat for the contestants to lie on.

How to Play

  • Athletes lie on the ground, next to each other, facing in opposite directions.
  • They lock their inside elbows.
  • The contestants' arms must be on their chests with fngers either interlaced or gripping the wrists.
  • They each bring their inside straightened legs up to full vertical--once, twice and on the third time they interlock their legs and try to pull their opponent over or push their opponent's leg to the floor.
  • If the athletes cannot set their legs properly, the teacher may help.
  • Contestants will lose the round if their hands come apart.
  • After the first round, athletes spin around and change legs.
  • Teachers should devise a "STOP" signal in case students get stuck or are in pain; they can yell that signal in order to stop the match.
  • Make sure students pull straight down with legs to avoid striking the opponent in the face.
  • The winner must roll his opponent over two out of three tries.

Game 6: One-Foot High Kick

This is a game of extraordinary agility, balance, coordination, speed, reflexes, and explosive strength. Similar to the Two-Foot High Kick, this game was developed as a means for hunters to communicate visual messages. When a messenger from a hunting or whaling crew was within sight of the village, he would kick high into the air as a sign of a successful hunt.

Equipment Needed:

Use a high kick target (follow the same directions as the Alaska High Kick for the target and structure information).

The target is suspended at an easy starting height for all participants, and then raised incrementally until the winner is declared. Height increments of 1 inch are typical; however, participants' consensus rules.

How to Play

  • Contestants have the option of jumping from a standing position or from a running start.
  • Athletes may use their arms to gain upward momentum.
  • The athlete jumps off from both feet simultaneously, kicks the suspended target with any part of one foot, and lands on the same kicking foot, maintaining balance.
  • Athletes may hop to retain balance.
  • If they bring their knees high before extending the legs, they will achieve better results. 
  • Failing to kick the object, falling, landing on both feet, or landing on the opposite foot will nullify the jump.
  • Three attempts at each height will be given to each athlete.
  • The athlete who touches the ball at the highest elevation wins.

Game 7: Two-Foot High Kick

Years ago, whale hunters returning home to their coastal villages after success at sea would jump and kick both feet into the air while running, signaling the people of the village to come and help in beaching the whale. This game requires steady concentration accompanied by an explosion of physical power. The game was practiced in the winter and often played in a small community house. Thus, the Two-Foot High Kick tested how high a person could jump, rather than how far.

Equipment Needed

The Two-Foot High Kick target follows the same instructions as the Alaska High Kick and One-Foot High Kick.

How to Play

  • Contestants have the option of jumping from a standing position or from a running start.
  • Athletes may use their arms to gain upward momentum.
  • Contestants must leave the ground with both feet together.
  • With both legs kicking simultaneously, they must touch the suspended target with one or both feet, and then land with feet together.
  • Contestants may hop after landing to keep balance.
  • While in the air, athletes should bring their knees in close to their bodies. Once at maximum height, contestants should extend their feet and attempt to strike the ball while keeping head and upper body vertical.
  • The feet must remain parallel and together from takeoff to landing.
  • Falling or landing on one foot will nullify the jump.
  • Three attempts at each height will be given to each athlete.
  • The winner is the athlete who touches the ball at the highest elevation.

Game 8: Wrist Carry

The Wrist Carry is a game of physical power and endurance. Hauling seal onto an ice floe or carrying a haunch of moose long distance back to the village required great strength.


Equipment Needed

A round stick or dowel 48 inches long and 1 5/16 inches in diameter. The stick is marked with a line the long way so judges can watch for twisting (not allowed). A fairly large, measured floor space. A watch. A start line.


How to Play

  • Wrist Carry is a team event: two members of the team carry the third, the contestant.
  • Two people hold the ends of the stick in the air above the contestants who is sitting on the ground.
  • The athlete makes a fist with one hand (either one), then hooks that wrist over the middle of the stick.
  • With his/her free hand, the contestant grasps the hooked forearm with the thumb wrapped around.
  • If the contestant's grip slips, he is not allowed to re-grip the forearm.
  • The athlete's hooked hand may not touch his face for support while being carried. Nor may the athlete's face touch the stick.
  • The athlete's legs can be crossed however the athlete feels comfortable--cross-legged, tucked or in a Yoga Lotus position.
  • The carriers can hold the stick using the hands alone, or they can place the stick in the crook of their arm.
  • The carriers then lift the contestant and begin to walk or run the course.
  • Each athlete is given one chance. The athlete who is carried the furthest before touching the floor is the winner.

Game 9: Finger Pull

The rigorous subsistence way of life, in practice for thousands of years in the Arctic, required great strength and endurance. The Finger Pull game helped hunters develop and maintain their hand and arm strength.

Equipment Needed

A mat for the contestants to sit on is optional.

How to Play

  • Two athletes sit facing each other.
  • One athlete bends the right leg, and the opponent's feet are braced against the first athlete's right shin.
  • The first athlete leans slightly backwards, bracing his elbow against his right thigh, and places his hand on the opponent's left knee.
  • The opponent braces his/her left hand on the first athlete's left shoulder and then both lock middle fingers.
  • On a signal, both pull slowly and steadily.
  • No jerking, twisting, or re-gripping is allowed.
  • The object is to pull the opponent's arm out slightly or to cause him/her to straighten his/her finger or to otherwise signal giving up.
  • This game was originally played with a piece of string and pull pegs held with the forefingers. This is now a game of fun and endurance.

Game 10: Seal Hop

The Seal Hop is a game that tests the participant's strength, determination, and tolerance for pain. Hunters would often imitate a seal in order to sneak closer, disguising themselves by wearing seal skin, hopping, and even calling like a seal.

Equipment Needed

A starting stripe and a turning stripe. A large floor space. A tape measure.

How to Play

  • The object is to see how far an athlete can hop in a push-up position--hands and toes being the only parts of the body touching the floor.
  • Boys and girls play the game slightly differently. Boys hop on their front knuckles and palms. Girls hop on their open palms. The only other parts of the body touching the floor are the toes.
  • Contestants begin with their shoulders behind the start line.
  • The participant hops forward as far as possible, keeping the back straight, bottom in the air, elbows bent and tucked-in close to the body.
  • The athlete's bottom cannot be higher than his/her shoulders at any time.
  • If the floor space is not long enough, contestants can turn around at a designated turn-line, but they must continue hopping as they turn, their legs must remain together, and both hands and feet must pass the turn-line.
  • Warnings or disqualification may occur if the athlete stops and restarts, straightens the arms, touches the floor with any part of the body other than palms and toes, raises his/her bottom above the shoulders, or moves from the spot where he/she ended before the distance is measured by a judge.
  • Three warnings will disqualify the contestant.
  • The winner is the athlete who travels the farthest distance without stopping.

After viewing of the film Games of the North, engage students in discussions about the following:

1. What ceremonies in your life celebrate your culture? What ceremonies are celebrated in this film?

2. Who in your life makes you see from a different point of view and why?

3. The games in the movie are personal competitions for the athletes. What activity in your life is extremely challenging, yet strictly personal?

4. What skills and knowledge will you be able to pass down to younger people and how would you go about teaching that knowledge?

5. What is the role of Elders in your culture?

6. If your culture was evaporating, what would you do to preserve it?

7. Survival requires different skills depending on where you live. What survival skills are needed in an urban environment?

8. The games in the film are personal, but they are also social, celebrating group support for the individual. What activities in your life support you through community effort?

For more information on ordering the film, Games of the North visit: www.gamesofthenorth.com OR www.pbs.org

Assessment & Standards

Assessment & Standards

A variety of assessments can be created for each game, depending on the teacher's instructional goals. These assessments may target ability, effort, and understanding of Alaska Native cultures and games.

National Standards for Sport and Physical Education

Standard 1

Students demonstrate motor skills and movement patterns to perform a variety of physical activities.

Standard 2

Students understand movement concepts, principles and tactics as they apply to the learning and performance of physical activities.

Standard 3

Students utilize appropriate motor skills, tactics and movement concepts/principles while participating in physical activity.

Standard 5

Students demonstrate responsible personal and social behavior in a physical activity setting.

Standard 6

Students choose physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge and/or social interaction.

"These aren't just games, they are survival skills."

-Big Bob Aiken (Iñupiaq). World Record Holder, Elder, Coach and W.E.I.O. Official.

Additional Resources