Traditional Games of a Timeless Land: Play Cultures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities

By Edwards, Ken | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Traditional Games of a Timeless Land: Play Cultures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities


Edwards, Ken, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Sports history in Australia has focused almost entirely on modern, Eurocentric sports and has therefore largely ignored the multitude of unique pre-European games that are, or once were, played. The area of traditional games, especially those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, is an important aspect of the cultural, social and historical experiences of Indigenous communities. These activities include customs of play that are normally not associated with European notions of competitive sport. Overall, this paper surveys research undertaken into traditional games among Indigenous Australians, as well as proposals for much needed further study in this area.

Traditional games as a research area

In 2006 a special issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport was devoted to the experiences of Native Americans and Canadian Aborigines in sport. There were three foci: the problematic inclusion of Indigenous peoples in Western sport, the cultural appropriation of native imagery in that context, and the resilience of traditional Aboriginal sports in the modern era. It was admitted that the last area of research was the least developed or understood of the three, and remains so (King 2006:131). This lacuna is even more pronounced in the Australian context. While there have been welcome studies into the impact of modern sport upon the lives of Aborigines (Tatz 1995; Whimpress 2000), there have been very few investigations into the traditional sports and games that have shaped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for centuries. A key problem is that many customary activities have fallen into disuse and have even been lost to new generations. By contrast, there has been something of a revival of Indigenous games in some parts of the world. In Canada, for example, the Yukon Championships in Arctic Sports and Dene Games feature competitions in traditional pastimes like snowshoeing, dog mushing and Inuit-style wrestling (Yukon Aboriginal Sport Circle 2009). In Brazil around 1000 participants from some 40 traditional Brazilian tribes take part in the Indigenous People's Games, in which spears, bows and arrows, as well as ball games, feature (Moffett 2004). Meanwhile, in Mongolia, the Naadam Festival is a three-day nationwide event featuring customary styles of horse riding, wrestling and archery (Mongolian National Festival Naadam 2009). These are vivid demonstrations of traditional games in contemporary settings. In Australia, however, there is no performance equivalent of these celebrations of age-old Aboriginal sporting practices. While the Arafura Games, staged in Darwin, incorporate Muaythai and Sepak Takraw, two historically significant physical activities from South-East Asia, the other 24 events are drawn from Olympic or Western contexts. There are, in short, no traditional Aboriginal games festivals in Australia, nor are these age-old customs featured at mainstream sport events around the country. Hence, there are many challenges awaiting the re-energisation of traditional Aboriginal sports culture in contemporary Australia.

Observing traditional games in Australia

Since the time of first European exploration and later colonisation, significant material on Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander play cultures--referred to here as traditional games--has been collected. In this paper traditional games are defined as those which include all aspects of traditional and contemporary play cultures associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identifiable communities, and are generally accepted as an adequate reflection of their cultural heritage and social identity. The accumulation of a large number of first-hand accounts may be, in part, due to the interest that many early settlers and explorers had in observing and recording differences between European cultures and those of the Indigenous population of Australia. These observations include a focus on customs of play and the activities of children. …

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