Games of the North

Background Information

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

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.