Students stretch sticks toward the sun in anticipation of the next game of lacrosse during last Friday’s Indigenous Games Play Day at Sobieski Park.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
On a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, dozens of small children dashed around Sobieski Park with lacrosse sticks, tossing balls to one another and learning how to play the ancient game. At another station, students played traditional tag games, while another group played a Meso-American game called “Crow Arrows.” The students were taking part in the first ever Indigenous Games Play Day, which was organized by the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee of Winona Area Public Schools, giving the children a chance to learn about the sports and games of many of North America’s longest-standing communities.
Dan Ninham, along with his wife Susan Ninham and brother Paul Ninham, have been working with the games for nearly 35 years.
“We are part of the indigenous games movement,” Dan said. “We want these games to continue. These are the original games in many areas, not just here, but across the county.”
Dan is a physical education teacher in Bemidji, Minn., while Susan is an administrative officer at Red Lake Comprehensive Health Services. The two, as members of the Oneida and Ojibwa tribes, created a program that travels across the country from North Dakota to New Mexico teaching indigenous communities and schools about the historical games.
The games at Friday’s event included a traditional form of lacrosse, played with the classic Ojibwe version of the sticks; double ball; ancient Meso-American games; and shinny and longball, which are similar to field hockey and baseball, respectively.
“There are stories involved in a lot of the games, which we call medicine games,” Dan explained, adding that they are also known as the Creator’s games. In indigenous cultures, the games are considered to be gifts from the Creator, who gave the games to the people to communicate and cooperate with one another, as well as learn important skills.
“There’s more than just throwing a ball to these games,” he said.
All three of the Ninhams have lots of experience with physical education and teaching, Susan explained. Dan, for one, has a Doctorate in education and has taught physical education for 36 years. Susan taught physical education and health education for 12 years, followed by a decade as a school principal, while Paul has both a Master’s degree in tribal government and a Bachelor’s degree in physical education.
Their history as teachers is what got them into teaching indigenous games in the first place, Susan said.
“We identified in the schools where we taught that they never taught our indigenous games,” Susan explained. Both Susan and Dan set out to learn and research indigenous games and bring them to the classroom, eventually traveling across the country and meeting with different tribes and learning their games and traditions, as well.
From there, the group began touring the program across the Midwest and slowly expanding the number and their knowledge of the games as they went along.
“The best part for these kids is having that intercultural exchange,” Susan said. “A lot of the students here didn’t know about speaking different languages or the different tools that we use.”
Language was also an important part of the festivities. Students were taught Ojibwe words for numbers and greetings, along with the terms for the various sports equipment that was being used. In fact, the groups also played a version of “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” using the Ojibwe words for the birds.
Dan explained that the culture is brought into the games in more ways than one –– not just through the games themselves, but also through how they are played and how the children work together.
“We tell the kids to yell if they’re having fun, but in our cultures, people call out to let the Creator know they are playing the game,” Dan said. “They’re a part of history. And when you play these games, you’re a part of history, as well.”