Arctic Winter Games

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Arctic Winter Games

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: One week in March during even-numbered years
Where Celebrated: Canada, Greenland, Alaska (location varies)
Symbols and Customs: Bannock Making, Hodgson Trophy, Inuit Games, ThreeRing Logo
Related Holidays: Olympic Games, World Eskimo-Indian Olympics


The Arctic Winter Games got their start in the late 1960s, when a Yukon businessman named Cal Miller and Stuart Hodgson, the commissioner of the Northwest Territories, found themselves at the Canada Winter Games in Quebec City, where they had come to support their local athletes. It disturbed both men to see how often the competitors from Canada's two northern territories were defeated by those from the southern Canadian provinces, who had the training facilities, sponsorship, and other forms of support that their northern counterparts lacked. The discussion that Hodgson and Miller had that evening led to the establishment of the Arctic Winter Games, which were held for the first time in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, in 1970.

At first, only athletes from the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska participated in the games, but they were soon joined by northern Quebec (which dropped out of the games a few years later), Greenland, and northern Alberta. Athletes from the nearby Russian provinces joined the competition in 1990, and since that time the games have been held every two years at varying locations in Yukon, northern Alberta, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories. Nearly 3,000 athletes-from Russia, Alaska, Yukon, Northern Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nunavit (Arctic Quebec), Nunavut, Greenland, and Sami-participated in the 2006 Games, which were hosted by the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

While the Arctic Games feature many of the same events as the OLYMPIC GAMES -including alpine and cross-country skiing, hockey, snowboarding, speed skating, curling, and the biathlon-there is a marked emphasis on traditional INUIT GAMES and on northern sports like dog mushing and snowshoeing. The Arctic Games also include other sports, including some that are associated elsewhere with summer-such as basketball, badminton, volleyball, soccer, and wrestling-because there is no real summer this far north and such games must be played indoors. From their very inception, the emphasis of the Arctic Winter Games has been on getting as many athletes as possible to participate in the competition, rather than on attracting elite athletes, who have ample opportunity to compete elsewhere.

In addition to the sporting events, the games feature many cultural exhibits and activities. The 2006 Games, for example, included art exhibits, fireworks, traditional dance performances, and a pin-trading party.


Bannock Making

Competitions and demonstrations that involve making bannock-a traditional round flour-water biscuit to which salt, lard, buttermilk, baking soda or powder, and other ingredients have since been added-are common at the Arctic Winter Games and at the smaller regional competitions leading up to the Arctic Games. Bannock making was often part of the "Good Woman Contest," a competition in which women competed against one another in such essential frontier skills as skinning seals and cutting up caribou meat-at one time the only part of the games in which women were allowed to participate. Nowadays women compete in almost all the events, but bannock making remains popular. Bannock resembles a large scone and is traditionally cooked in a cast iron frying pan over an open fire with lots of melted lard.

Hodgson Trophy

The Hodgson Trophy, named after Commissioner Stuart Hodgson of the Northwest Territories, one of the founders of the Arctic Winter Games, consists of a soapstone base and a narwhal tusk. There is a walrus carved into the base of the tusk and a bear near the top, symbolic of the athletes' striving to do their best. Although medals are awarded to individual athletes, the trophy is awarded to the team whose conduct best demonstrates "the ideals of fair play and team spirit."

Inuit Games

For most spectators, the highlight of the Arctic Winter Games is the traditional Inuit Games, which were developed by the aboriginal inhabitants of northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and northeastern Siberia as a way of amusing themselves and staying fit during the long, dark winter days. Most of these games fostered skills that were essential to survival, and they could be played with little or no equipment in the limited space of an igloo. Participation and self-improvement were stressed over competition, and it was unusual for someone to actually get hurt.

Today, both men and women participate in events that involve pulling, reaching, kicking, twisting, and sheer endurance. In the "mouth pull" and "ear pull," for example, the object is to reach around behind the other person's head and grab his or her mouth or ear so that he or she is forced to turn his or her head to the side. In the "finger pull," two contestants face each other with their middle fingers locked, pulling until one of them is forced to straighten his or her finger. The "head pull" is similar, except that the competitors have a belt or piece of canvas webbing fastened around both their heads, against which they pull in an effort to throw the other offbalance. There is also an "arm pull" and a "hand pull" based on the same principle. The "knuckle hop" can be quite painful to watch, as the contestants get into a "pushup" position and then try to hop forward by balancing on their knuckles and toes.

Kicking events include the one-foot and two-foot high kicks. Both involve jumping up and kicking an object, typically a wad of sealskin, that is suspended at increasingly higher levels. The name of the event doesn't refer to the distance competitors must jump, however; it refers to how they land. In the one-foot high kick, they must take off on both feet, kick the target object with one foot, and then land on this same foot while not touching the floor with the other. In the two-foot high kick, they must jump with both feet, kick the object, and land on both feet. The "Alaskan high kick" involves so much strength, coordination, and balance that it defies description.

Most Inuit games require agility and extraordinary arm and hand strength-skills that were at one time needed for hunting and harpooning, for jumping from one ice floe to the next, and for outmaneuvering wild animals. In the "musk-ox fight," for example, women get down on their hands and knees, place their heads side by side, and push against one another's shoulders in much the same way the female musk-ox does in the wild.

Three-Ring Logo

The logo for the Arctic Winter Games consists of three interlocking rings symbolizing the three purposes for which the games are held: "athletic competition, cultur

Values of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee

Cultural Awareness Respect for Self and Others and Understanding Partnerships Fair Play Personal Development Access and Equity Community Development Integrity al exhibition, and social interchange," according to the Arctic Winter Games International Committee.


Arctic Winter Games Official Web Site
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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