Sunday, January 13, 2019

Inuit Games

Whenever we visit my son, Dan, in Traverse City, I make a point of visiting the Dennos Museum at Northwestern Michigan College.  There often are interesting loan exhibitions but I am drawn to the galleries devoted to the museum’s Inuit Collections which consist of mostly sculpture and prints.

The Dennos has built a serious Inuit Collection and there is always work by Inuit artists on view. The Inuit live in the Canadian Arctic and used to be known as Eskimos. When we were at the museum this time there was a show within the installation of prints showing Inuit Games appropriately called, “Game On”. 

Why do we play games?  Naturally, it is because we enjoy them, and they are challenging.  Outdoor games are also good for your health, barring injury, but there is a more important reason for the Inuit.  They live in the very harsh arctic climate and need to be in excellent shape to survive.

Let’s begin with a game that is not necessarily played outside.  This lithograph from the Museum’s own collection is called “The Wishing Bone Game”,1987, by Andrew Qappik.  Games often have different rules depending on their origins.  Here three teens use small pointed seal bones to construct a diagram of an igloo with food stashes.  Depending how the bones land one player can take bones from the other’s stash and the one who loses all their bones first loses the game.


A stone cut and stencil print by Napachie Pootoogook is simply called “Eskimo Family Playing Ball”, 1961.  The artist is illustrating one of many ball games the Inuit created or adapted over generations.  This game is a modification of Lacrosse, invented by aboriginal peoples south of the Arctic Circle.  Players use a sealskin racket to catch and throw a small, stuffed ball made from animal skin.  I think we might call the game racket ball but note that here the players may use two rackets simultaneously.


Some games are more difficult than others and can become harder as the game goes on. So it is with hi-kick ball.  In this stonecut and stencil print, “High Kick”, 1984,  the artists Agnes Nanogak Goose and Harry Egutak collaborated to show the game at its zenith.  The idea is that the players try to kick a ball from a standing or lying position.  Each time one succeeds the ball is raised a bit higher.  Unfortunately, I could not find the image I saw at one time where ladies are gathered in a second story window raising the ball and clearly giggling as they dangle the ball out the window just out of reach of the players!


As usual, I like to keep the best, or maybe in this case the worst for close to the end.  I don’t know of similar games in the world today.  This is the ear pull and its close cousin the cheek pull.  This print of the former is by A. Karpik & Josea Maniapik, 1979.  The traditional Inuit game tests the competitors' ability to endure pain.  In some circles, American Football might be thought to fall into this category!  In the ear pull, two competitors kneel or sit facing each other, their legs straddled and interlocked. A two-foot-long loop of string, similar to a thick, waxed dental floss, is looped behind their ears, connecting right ear to right ear, or left to left. The competitors then pull upon the opposing ear using their own ear until the cord comes free or one player quits from the pain. The game has been omitted from some Arctic sports competitions due to safety concerns and the squeamishness of spectators; the event can cause bleeding and competitors sometimes require stitches.  When will we follow suit re football and boxing?


You have probably heard the saying, “don’t send a hungry man grocery shopping.”  He is bound to buy food he doesn’t need and shouldn’t eat.  Same goes for a writer with much of a blank page.  I want to illustrate another print I wish to share. Though it doesn’t depict a game, it will end us on a happier note.  The stencil print by Mabel Nigiyok and her children, Lucy and Louie, called “Asking for Help,” 1994, illustrates the life lesson that no one succeeds on their own without help.  You can see a dancer singing and drumming surrounded by spirit figures , including a man, carried in the clouds by a bird ,and a dancing bear whose power is suggested by by his paw prints scattered throughout. Deducing that the airborne man is a shaman, a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits and having the ability to heal, my interpretation is that even a shaman needs help sometimes.


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