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‘Culture has a role just as big as sport’ at the Arctic Winter Games

As athletes and competitors compete against each other at the Arctic Winter Games in Wood Buffalo, Alta., they also make friends and learn about other teams’ cultures.

The Games are not just about sport – it is also an opportunity for Arctic peoples to come together and share knowledge.

This year, the 2023 Games will have a full cultural gala set on Thursday and Friday, with song, dance, drama and other performances. But there was also feasting, dancing and drumming at evening celebrations.

Taiga Las, a 15-year-old cultural delegate from Iqaluit, said she is looking forward to the upcoming performances.

“People think that different cultures are basically all the same, but they’re not,” she said. There are similarities, but also differences.

“I also learned a lot from other cultures.”

A girl dressed in red gives a high five to a boy dressed in blue.
Drum dancers from Iqaluit High Five members of Team Alberta North during a celebration for Dene Games and Arctic Sports participants on day three of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games at MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray, Alta on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On Tuesday evening, the participants were welcomed to a celebratory dinner. Alice Martin, an elder of the Mikisew Cree First Nation of Fort Chipewyan, Alta, opened the festival with prayer.

Culture is her passion, she said, and she passes it on to the youth.

“All the young people here, it’s nice to see them because some of us want to revitalize our culture, show them how important it is to us and share that with them,” she said.

Artists from the circumpolar region show their shoes.
Artists from across the polar region show off their shoes during a celebration for Dene Games and Arctic Sports participants on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“For me, the spirituality of the indigenous peoples from here – the Cree, Dene and Métis – is very important, especially when you offer this type of cultural event.”

Jes Croucher and Allison Flett, the Games’ cultural co-chairs, said local elders planned the menu for Tuesday’s festival. There was bison stew, two types of duck, arctic char, berries, rice and tea.

“I think culture is as important as sport and that’s what makes these games so special,” said Flett.

People in traditional dress smile when talking to each other.
Iqaluit drum dancers in red and Alaskan Yuraq dancers in blue share a moment during a celebration for Dene Games and Arctic Sports participants on day three of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games at MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Our culture is based on kinship, so the spirit of kinship runs through everything and it’s just so nice that we can share [our culture] with all our visitors.”

Mia Maurice, who will perform during Thursday and Friday’s gala, said she practiced a lot to prepare for her performances.

“It takes a lot of practice every day, but it’s a lot of fun,” she said.

The participants also got a taste of culture beyond the performances. James Fabian Willier, a competitive dog sled driver from Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta, helped facilitate dog sledding during Shine on the Snye, one of the cultural events at the Games.

Dog sledding is an “ancient way of life,” he said, that was used long before snowmobiles and even horses.

“It’s a big part of Métis culture, indigenous culture and just everyone,” he said.

“Being able to expose people to every aspect of indigenous culture and our way of life is all the better for understanding, I think, than we would be with any other nationality.”

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