Canada | First among soccer nations

Northern Lights,” an etching and aquatint by Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok, depicts the arsarnerit legend, in which Inuit ancestors play football with a walrus skull.

As they did in parts of Africa and Latin America, British miners established football in British Columbia three decades after the province joined the Confederation of Canada in 1871. The sport helped unite mining communities such as Nanaimo, Cumberland and Ladysmith on Vancouver Island.

But ball games had indigenous roots in the northern tier, as they did in Mesoamerica. Mark Nuttall, a University of Alberta anthropologist, has detailed European explorers’ and researchers’ intersections with football-playing Inuit. “In The Central Eskimo,” Nuttall writes, “Franz Boas described ball games (and recorded songs about ball games, including football) played by the Inuit of southern Baffin Island in the Eastern Canadian Arctic in the 1880s.” The ball, according to Boas, consisted of moss-stuffed sealskin. Boas goes on to describe a juggling game, seemingly a variant of the Inuit game of akraurak or aqijut, played on Ulukhaktok, also known as Holman Island, in the Northwest Territories.

According to Kendall Blanchard in The Anthropology of Sport: An Introduction (Bergin Garvey/Greenwood, 1995), akraurak is contested between goals that are “markings in the snow at unspecified distances from each other. Teams kick the ball up and down the field, the object being to drive it across the goal line of an opponent. The game is played predominantly in the spring and summer months, and everyone, regardless of sex or age, may participate” (150).

As Nuttall also writes, Inuit from Greenland and across the Arctic see in aurora borealis, the northern lights, the souls of ancestors. They call these heavenly apparitions arsarnerit, or “the football players.”

Among First Nations, who are distinct from Inuit and another Canadian indigeneous group, the Métis, it is harder to identify a precursor to modern football. Traditions of leisure and games, however, form part of the cyclical life pattern characteristic of aboriginal culture. Recurring competitions such as the Arctic Games and North American Indigenous Games feature traditional sports as well as soccer. Started in 1990, the latter includes more than 9,000 participants in sport and cultural events.

Around Queen Charlotte Strait, on the northern end of Vancouver Island and in mainland BC, a First Nations soccer league has existed since 1958. The Twin Arrows team of young Bahá’í joined the league six years ago. (Copyright © 2006 Bahá’í World News Service)

A report from the Bahá’í World News Service on a soccer league of tribal communities on Vancouver Island contains the tantalizing historical nugget that such games might have been a means of subverting the Canadian government’s ban on potlatch in western provinces. The potlatch consisted of games, ceremonies and feasts that served to order intra- and inter-tribal relations and to mark rites of passage, but missionaries’ alarming reports about the “demonic” practices helped lead to the restrictions that endured until 1951. Another characteristic feature of western First Nations’ cultural practice—the totem pole—typically is erected during potlatch.

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