Indigenous Winter Activities

Written on 01/25/2021

Indigenous communities across North America have shared survival and recreation skills for generations. These skills were passed down intentionally and many even evolved into competitive sports. These competitions revitalize those sacred teachings and reconnect Indigenous communities with their ancestors and lands. American Indians and Alaska Natives invented many popular winter pastimes that are practiced all over the world today.

Whether it’s sledding down a hill with family or storytelling with elders about traditions, plenty of fun winter activities are rooted from Indigenous people. Let’s explore a few.

Hockey was first played by First Nations people hundreds of years ago. Early pucks were made of frozen apples before they began carving them out of cherry wood. Ice skates were also made using animal bone that was tied to their feet.

The sport quickly evolved into one of the most popular games in history. It not only brings together other countries, but a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Keep this in mind the next time you are cheering on your favorite team!

Most people don’t realize that tobogganing was used by First Nations people as well. Toboggans were used to travel or transport things across deep snow, oftentimes pulled by people or a team of sled dogs. It became a popular sport in the late 1800s.

This has since evolved into a recreational wintertime activity – helping kids fulfill the irresistible urge to soar down a hillside, now more commonly known as sledding.

The next time you have a free afternoon with a fresh blanket of snow, consider grabbing family, friends and warm snow gear. The hills are waiting for you!

Similar to toboggans, snowshoes were a necessity to people who travelled by foot over all kinds of terrain. Oval shaped snowshoes, or “bear paws,” were ideal for hard packed snow. The teardrop-shaped ones, or “beavertails,” were great for more open terrain and powdery snow.

While snowshoeing long served as this survival tool for navigation, it has since become a recreational activity for those who want to work out while admiring the white-washed landscape. It is a great way to get fresh air when the days are short and the snow is deep.

Ice fishing
Indigenous people of northern Canada would source their own protein during winter months by ice fishing! They would chip holes in the ice and would use hand-carved wooden fish to lure the real ones over. A spear was then used, made from wood or bone, to catch the feast.

If your fishing rods have been stowed away since summer, now is the perfect opportunity to bring them back out.  

If you live in a climate without snow or just prefer to be inside, other opportunities present themselves for us to enjoy. Consider learning the names of winter animals or plants in your Native language. A festive start could be owls, rabbits, wolves, coyotes, moose or snow.

Another idea is to reach out to your local tribal or urban language program for resources, research dictionaries and YouTube videos in your language. However, the most rich learning experience would be to reach out to your local elders or fluent speakers in your community using proper social distancing protocol as well as traditional protocols (i.e. offering tobacco or another gift) in exchange for requesting knowledge. 

Winter is also a great opportunity to share stories with others in your community. Traditionally, storytelling occurs in the winter months as families and extended families are gathered indoors and intentionally focus on intergenerational knowledge transmission. Engaging in storytelling with elders is a valuable way to honor traditions and strengthen the relationships with one another.

As you can see, there are many ways to pass the time during the short, winter days. You can engage in many winter games and activities that you grew up enjoying, like the ones mentioned here, while still honoring their Indigenous origins.