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Traditional Indigenous sports take centre stage at 25th Arctic Winter Games

Yukon’s Matthew Jacobson, left, competes against Greenland’s Bent Jakobsen in the head pull. This event requires competitors to prop themselves up on their hands facing one another with a leather band wrapped around the back of their heads. The winner is the one who either pulls their competitor across a line on the ground or the band off their head.

Each event is a feat of strength, balance and agility that could be performed in tight confines of an igloo during the dark winter months

In the 1970s, politicians and community leaders in Canada's northern territories inaugurated the Arctic Winter Games.

The first Games were in Yellowknife in 1970 and were attended by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. One thing noticeably absent from the competition was traditional Indigenous games, which have been played in the north for generations. A group of northerners from the Beaufort Delta – including Edward Lennie and the Northwest Territories' first female premier, Nellie Cournoyea – decided to make the case for their introduction by demonstrating some traditional events at the first Games in Yellowknife.

It would be another two iterations of the biennial competition for the Arctic Sports (formerly known as the Inuit Games) made their debut at the 1976 Games in Schefferville, Que.

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Gerry Kisoun, a long-time advocate for traditional Arctic sports and former deputy commissioner of NWT, who helped organize the demonstrations in the early 1970s, said, "This is our Olympics."

Each event, Kisoun said, is a feat of strength, balance and agility that could be performed in tight confines of an igloo during the dark winter months.

"These games go hundreds of years back. I played them and my father played them and his grandfather played them," he said.

In the early years the AWG only featured teams from Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. They now have nine circumpolar delegations, including Greenland, Yamal (Russia), Alberta North, Nunavik, Sapmi and Nunavut, which separated from the NWT in 1999.

This year's Games are being jointly hosted in the Northwest Territories between the communities of Hay River and Fort Smith, which have a combined population of no more than 7,000 people.

Greenland’s Mick Josefsen, foreground, pulls over the Northwest Territories’ Kobe Keevik in the final round of the competition to win the first gold medal for his home country at the Arctic Winter Games. In the arm pull, competitors face another with their legs intertwined and one arm wrapped around the other at the elbow. The loser is the one who releases their grip first.

Russia’s Denis Longortov competes in the airplane at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games. The airplane is not a traditional game and was added to the Games in the 1990s. It requires the competitor to maintain an iron cross position while being carried around a gymnasium. At the Games in Greenland in 2016, the airplane became a timed event, after previously being decided on distance. Nunavik’s Larry Thomassiah ended up winning gold this year with a time of 56.83 seconds.


The crowd during a break in the action at the airplane event in Fort Smith. Arctic Sports are a fan favourite at the Arctic Winter Games.


Alaska’s Nick Hanson collapses on the floor after completing a 51.44 second attempt in the airplane event. Hanson’s time ended up being good enough to net him a silver medal.

Matthew Angus Anikina competes in the one hand reach during the 2018 Arctic Winter Games in Fort Smith. The one hand reach requires athletes to prop themselves up on one hand and touch a seal skin ball with their other hand before returning to balance themselves on two hands without any other part of their body touching the ground. Nunavut’s Drew Bell ended up setting a new Arctic Winter Games record this year after reaching a height of 5 foot 7 inches on his third and final attempt.

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