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Traditional Sports for Unity

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A group of men on a bridge pull on a rope as spectators watch.
International tug-of-war, Grande Riviere Festival, Van Buren, Maine. Maine Acadian Folklife Survey. Photo by David A. Whitman, July 14, 1991.

The ancient concept of the Olympics was to create competitions that brought people together once every four years in a ritual in honor of the god Zeus. Wars were banned while the games were put on allowing people of different states to participate and travel to and from the games safely. People came from all over the Greek-speaking world. Running is the earliest of the known athletic competitions and other competitions, such as poetry, were once part of the ancient events. The modern Olympic games, created in  1896, were conceived in the spirit of bringing peoples of different nations together for competition in the hope of helping to foster peaceful relations of different peoples.  Sports have their origins in different parts of the world as well, although some sports that were part of the ancient games, such as running, discus toss, wrestling, and javelin toss are still represented in the games today.

Folklorists study games and often are interested in competitions with ancient roots. Some are so ancient that no one can say where they originated. In this blog I will look at a couple of sports that are not in the Olympics today, but that have some of the same spirit of bringing people together. (Also see a new post from the Veterans History Project about an exhibit celebrating veterans who were also athletes: “VHP’s Newest Online Feature: First, Serve: Athletes in Uniform,” by Matt McCrady.)

An example is tug-of-war. Perhaps you played it as a kid. Did you draw a line to decide when one team had pulled the other far enough to win? The invention of rope is exceedingly ancient, and it is not known when someone first had the idea of making a competition of pulling on a rope. Versions of the sport were popular in Ancient Greece. Tug-of-war was part of the modern Olympics from 1900 to 1920, and there are many who would like to see it brought back to the games again.

When the American Folklife Center did a survey of French American communities in the Maine Acadian Folklife Survey, the team documented an international celebration of the communities of St. Leonard, Canada, and Van Buren, Maine, in the summer of 1991. Among the festivities was a tug-of-war between a Canadian team and an American team at the Grande Riviere Festival, Van Buren, Maine on July 14 (which is also Bastille Day). The festival began with revelers, some in clown costumes, making a great deal of noise with pots, pans, bells, and other noisemakers in the French tradition of Tintamarre. The Americans paraded to the Canadian side of the border, where officials from the communities of St. Leonard and Van Buren declared the festival opened.

Each tug-of-war team tried to pull the other across the border line into their own country on a bridge across the St. John’s River. The original idea, according to folklorist Ray Brassieur’s field notes, was to pull the rope across the river bank, but the shores of the St. John proved too rocky for that to be safe. The contest was moved to the bridge, but the Customs officials did not stop traffic for the contest, making the playing field unsafe. The result was a game that was a bit of a free-for-all with the American side recruiting very large pullers and the Canadian side adding more pullers to compensate as the game progressed. Eventually the rope broke, ending the game. It is not a game that will go down in history as a great international competition, but I enjoy the idea of a tug-of-war across an international boundary. Although the participants in this contest seem to have been men, organized tug-of-war competitions in the United States today are often between mixed teams of men and women.

A man in Native American dress dances with a hoop.
Dallas Chief Eagle, a Lakota hoop dancer, performing in the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress. November 15, 2007. Photo by Michaela McNichol.

Among Native Americans there are traditions developed for bringing peoples of different cultural groups together. The powwow is a gathering that invites people to come and participate in activities designed to help make connections. Native groups may have past histories of warfare as well as differences of customs and languages. Some come from areas so distant from one another that they have not had much experience with each other. Non-Indians often come to enjoy powwows as spectators, creating further opportunities for improving understanding between cultures. Powwow dance competitions are events that draw people together. Native American dance originated as part of ceremony and the competitive styles retain some of that significance as something to be taken seriously. In that sense they have something in common with the ancient Olympic competitions that were both competitions and part of ceremony.

Dances performed may vary according to the dances of the region where the powwow occurs, but some dances that have become popular at powwows include the men’s traditional dance, the men’s fancy dance, the women’s shawl dance, and a newer style, the women’s fancy shawl dance. These are competitive while also allowing various expressions of Native American identity and culture for both men and women.

A dance thought to have originated in the southwest that has spread far and wide is the hoop dance, an athletic dance using between one and twenty-eight hoops, with larger numbers of hoops becoming part of the tradition in the 20th century. Jones Benally, who may be the oldest living hoop dancer, learned the dance as a ceremonial dance, not a competition, in his Navajo (Diné) community. He gives a demonstration at the end of a performance by the Benally Family Dancers at the Library of Congress in 2019.

Hoop dancing has its own competition today, the Annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, which brings together dancers from the United States and Canada. Sadly, hoop dancing lost one of its great champions recently with the death of world champion Nakotah LaRance. He was an innovator, blending hip-hop with hoop dancing as well as performing in the traditional style. He contributed to the future of competitive hoop dancing by teaching young people. Learn more about Nakotah LaRance and view his performance at the Library of Congress via this tribute to him by Stephen Winick in Folklife Today.

Hoop dancing was originally considered a men’s dance, but today an increasing number of women are taking an interest.  In a 2007 performance of hoop dancing by Dallas Chief Eagle (Rosebud Lakota) and  Jasmine Pickner (Crow Creek Lakota), both describe Pickner’s decision to take up hoop dancing in conflict with tradition (see the video at the link). Dallas Chief Eagle agreed to teach her as he did not think that women should be kept from achieving their dreams.  In the video featuring Nakotah LaRance, another young woman can be seen hoop dancing, Shade Phea Young, who has other young women to compete with because of those who pioneered women’s hoop dancing like Jasmine Pickner.

A young woman in Native American dress dances with three hoops linked in a chain around her arms.
Shade Phea Young performs a hoop dance at the Library of Congress, May 18, 2016. Photo by Stephen Winick.

There are many kinds of competitions that bring people together and help them to learn more about each other, building understanding between communities. I think of break dancing and hip-hop competitions for instance. Dance Battle with Urban Artistry provided a Library of Congress audience an example of that in 2017 (at the link). Communities hold foot races and bicycle races that serve these functions as well. We are missing many of these kinds of sports now, but I hope soon we will be able to enjoy them again. Can you think of traditional athletic competitions that bring people together from many different cultures?  Feel free to describe your favorites in the comments.


Baseball Americana Symposium, 2009, Library of Congress

Maine Acadian Folklife Survey, 1991, Library of Congress

Montana Folklife Survey Collection, 1979, Library of Congress (includes documentation of the annual Crow Fair and the Arlee Powwow on the Flathead Indian Reservation)

Omaha Indian Music, Library of Congress (includes documentation of the annual harvest powwow in 1983)

Legends and Legacies Concert Celebrating Joseph T. Wilson and the National Council of Traditional Arts Collection, (Tom Mauchahty-Ware with Thomas Ware, III and Chester Tieyah, Jr. Kiowa and Comanche Music and Dance are introduced at about 1:11:30, this performance includes hoop dancing by Chester Tieyah Jr. ), Library of Congress, 2009.


  1. nice article

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