Traditional Significance of Sports

Traditional Significance of Sports

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Sioux Ball Players, by George Catlin

Courtesy of the McCune Collection and photographer Ken Innes

Native Americans have a long tradition of sporting activities from casual games to major events.  Indian sports activities emphasized fair play.  It was as important to perform with grace and integrity as it was to win.  Betting on contests of skill was a deeply ingrained tradition for both participants and spectators.

Ritual significance was placed on traditional sports and their outcomes. Athletes prepared for major competitions through training, dietary practices, and spiritual preparation.  Victory in a game could cause good weather or avert bad storms, bring good health or healing to the community, or perhaps fertility in human reproduction or abundant harvests.  Usually ceremonial performances preceded the major games.

Traditional sports involved strong kinship ties and promoted total community support, thus many of the sports played were team games rather than individual games.

Sports were also an important part in the training of Indian children.  The required physical demands, strategies, and moral strengths, were viewed as important virtues that would transfer to other life situations.  Consequently, the lessons of sports were carefully taught.

Gambling on athletic competitions was a regular and universal practice for this continent’s Natives.  Betting, and the goods that were transferred, was a type of “reciprocal economics” in which the winnings were dispersed among the community and contributed to the greater good.