Traditional Sports

Traditional Sports

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Sioux Ball Players, by George Catlin

Courtesy of the McCune Collection and photographer Ken Innes

Traditional sports played were shinny, lacrosse, footracing, archery, swimming, hoop and pole, and various types of football.  Footraces have been among the most universal and popular of all Indian sports and extraordinary running exploits have become legendary.  Tribes throughout the continent placed importance on running for both enjoyment and utilitarian values such as war, trade, pursuit of game animals, and the delivery of messages.  In traditional times running activities ranged from the informal play of children to the highly organized and ceremonial races of adults (both men and women), often involving the whole community.  The Cahuilla played Shinny with two-man teams, kicking wooden balls for several miles and then back again.

From the times of the earliest contact with outsiders, Indians have continually astonished observers with their extraordinary running feats, especially in long-distance performances; this long standing tradition of running excellence still serves as a source of motivation and pride to Indian youth.  Most Indians concentrated on and excelled in distance running rather than short races.  Writer J. Adair reported in 1775 that he and other non-Indians could compete favorably with the Indians in short races.  In long races, however, he stated that “without any seeming toil, they would stretch on, leave us out of sight, and out-wind any horse.”  

Some games were played in winter, some in summer, some at night, some by day.  In one tribe, women might play a game exclusively, while for their neighbors it might be a men’s game.

Indians in traditional times used a variety of objects in different shapes and forms to play sports, including carved pieces of wood, stones, sticks, bones, and animal bladders.  Ball games came in many forms and varieties for both men and women.  The ball was usually propelled by being kicked, batted, or thrown with a racket or stick.  Players were prevented from using their hands in some games.