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Save the Dates: Traditional Native Games Conference & Competitions

Jack McNeel

The International Traditional Games Society was organized in 1997 but will hold its first Traditional Native Games Conference & Competitions from June 26-28 at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. This will bring together many of the leading minds throughout Indian country and elsewhere to discuss the value of these games, the preservation of spiritual ties as shown through joy and play and the restoration of traditional games within tribes from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

This conference will advance those basic philosophies and procedures through three disciplines. Traditionalists will speak of how the games were used in the old culture. Academics will speak about historic trauma and how that has affected succeeding generations in their ability to survive. Neuroscientists will discuss their work pertaining to the emotional center of the brain and the implications of how joy and play were part of the survival picture for all traditional people.

For many, the idea that genetic research and neuroscience are somehow connected with traditional Native games may be hard to grasp. Keynote speakers will come together on the final day of the conference to discuss how these three areas of knowledge work together, how the process should continue into the future, and how joy and play effects youngsters.

In addition to the speakers and panels there will also be times for youth competitions, both boys and girls, playing a variety of games dating back many generations in Native cultures. Included will be such games as shinney, doubleball, hoop and dart, lacrosse, atlatl targets, and more.

Craig Falcon, Blackfeet, is executive director for the International Traditional Games Society. Asked about the goals for the conference he said, “I hope the outcome is that we’re able to share new information, new research on not only the games but the neuroscience behind the games, brain research, and how it’s all connected.”

Falcon spoke of the time before reservation days. “We had our societies. Everything in tribes was very structured. The games back then were used as a tool for socializing, for teaching. There were spiritual games for healing and games of competition and gambling. When the reservation period came those things ceased to exist because of federal laws. We couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that.”

Sergio Pellis is one of the neuroscientists. He has been a professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta since 1990 with a primary focus of his work being on peer play and its development of social competence. Using a variety of species, from rats to large primates, he has shown that rough and tumble play during the juvenile period will help with the development of the prefrontal cortex.

In his words, “Free play, where young animals or young kids get to interact of their own accord, make up the rules and negotiate transgression of the rules, all go toward refining the development of the prefrontal cortex.”

He explains one can think of the prefrontal cortex as, “The executive brain. It’s the part of the brain that says, alright, I’ve got all these options in this situation, so how do I decide. It’s the part of the brain that seems to be able to take a complex situation, weigh the options as quickly as possible, and choose the most appropriate thing to do.”

“The core lesson I’ve learned is just the sheer importance, when you’re young, of experiencing unpredictability, dealing with situations which aren’t benign but aren’t terrible,” Pellis explained. “You don’t want to be a young rat and be eaten by an owl but you want to be a young rat that puts itself in a situation and gets a bit scared and then learns from the experience. I think encouraging free play amongst kids is an important avenue by which they generate the comfort of discomfort. They can push themselves and really challenge the development of the prefrontal cortex. It’s encouraging kids to be kids.”

Historic trauma is well documented throughout Indian country. Generations have been impacted by policies of genocide, boarding school demands and a multitude of other things. Traumatic behaviors were not resolved and have been passed down to succeeding generations.

“When trauma is not resolved you continue to have ongoing effects including anxiety and depression,” Billie Jo Kipp explained. Kipp, Blackfeet, is president of Blackfeet Community College with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

“We can get stuck like this for centuries,” she explains. “The more that historical trauma becomes a natural part of the discussion and incorporated into many of the things we do, there’s a realization and collective goal to heal from that.”

This broaches the question as to why historical trauma should be part of a native games conference. Kipp explains, “The games are an attempt to bring us back to a place of centeredness, a place of groundedness, a place of natural healing and natural competition. Anything that brings us back to those natural first connections is very healing in nature.”

The games themselves offer young Native Americans the opportunity to connect with their culture and their heritage. They learn how their ancestors lived and played many generations earlier.

The book Spirit of the Games has been described at the most accurate description of how those games were used in the old culture. It was written by Gregory Cajete. His resume is expansive as author of five books and as a lecturer who has traveled from New Zealand to Russia and many points between. He is presently director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Cajete, a Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo, will be speaking at the conference.

Others may not have the lengthy background but have equal enthusiasm for the games. Lamarr Oksasikewiyin, a Cree from Saskatchewan, is one of those. He’s a teacher who uses Native games as a teaching method in many subjects: mathematics, creative writing, physical education, etc. He also teaches workshops on the use of traditional games as Saskatchewan now has a mandate from the Ministry of Education to include aboriginal teaching across the curriculum. He said he’s “ready for anything” in terms of helping at the conference.

Alaska will also be represented. Nicole Johnson, chair of the board for the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, will be presenting and two coaches will accompany her. “Games were played for many reasons including building the skills necessary for survival, to kill time and for entertainment, and for celebration after a successful hunt,” she said.

“You’ll see the comradery between all the athletes. They’re coaching and helping each other. You couldn’t survive traditionally without the help of other people in your village.” Many of the games are unique to the far north and should be of interest to all.

Salish Kootenai College will host the conference sessions while Two Eagle River School will host the youth events. Persons interested in attending the conference, either as an adult or as a student or team wanting to be involved in the games, should go to traditionalnativegames.org to sign up.

The host hotel is KwaTaqNuk Lodge in Polson, Montana situated on the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake in the western part of the U.S. This is a Best Western facility and owned by the tribes. The lodge is offering discounted rates for those attending the conference. Phone either 406-883-3636 or 800-882-6363. The two towns, Polson and Pablo, are about nine miles apart and are within the Flathead Indian Reservation. 

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