Competing in the Shadow of Colonialism

With thousands of spectators watching, muscular members of New Zealand’s national rugby team stand in front of their opponents chanting energetically, moving their bodies aggressively and making intimidating facial expressions as part of the haka, a ritual Polynesian dance they perform before each game. The haka reflects the team’s and country’s indigenous Maori roots; it is a modern interpretation of the fighting rituals of their warrior ancestors and represents their self-determination as a people. Sporting events are more than simply competition between individuals and teams on a field, rather they are political arenas where grand ideological, social and cultural issues are played out. Looking anthropologically upon how sport contains powerful political and cultural struggles can help us think about the different ways that humans advocate for social change and express resistance in relation to violent historical pasts.

At the biennial Arctic Winter Games, indigenous people compete against each other in sports – such as a snowshoe biathalon, pole pushing, and sled jumping – in order to celebrate their cultural heritage and express ethnic self-determination. Since 1970, when the Arctic Winter Games began in the Northwest Territories, athletes representing Inuit and other northern indigenous peoples and communities have come to compete in winter sports, reflecting a pan-Arctic identity. Further, at the North American Indigenous Games young athletes from native groups in Canada and the USA compete in sports such as canoeing, kayaking, archery, and lacrosse, with the aim of celebrating indigenous distinctiveness.

Historical anthropologists argue that sports have historically worked as a tool for colonial states to force the assimilation of different ethnic and indigenous groups into the hegemonic colonial culture and society. Sports were a strategy to discipline the bodies and minds of colonized people. For example, the British settlers considered rugby to be an important colonial strategy in order to morally and physically discipline Maori men and assimilate them into the British way of living. In the 19th century, Native Americans were forced away from their tribal homes to live on boarding schools. In these schools, sports worked as one of the methods for ´civilizing´ Native Americans through monitoring and controlling every aspect of their behavior and attitude, as their traditional dances and movements became illegal by the federal government under the potlatch ban. In that sense, participation in sports was directly related to the fulfillment of the settlers’ colonial goals and a manifestation of control.

Taking these historical colonial perspectives into consideration, we can think upon how the Arctic Winter Games and North American Indigenous Games becomes especially important cultural avenues where indigenous people can express self-determination, as well as reflect upon and celebrate their distinctive cultural heritage through sports. Since sports have historically been one of the many ways that indigenous people have been discriminated against and oppressed, sporting events based on native skills and cultural heritage, such as snowshoe biathlon, lacrosse and archery can therefore also symbolize resistance against colonial oppression and rule. The importance of these games becomes even clearer when one considers some of the problematic conflicts there have been between indigenous groups and global sporting events, such as the Olympic Games. For example, in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Native Americans were forced to compete against white athletes as part of a ´scientific´ experiment that aimed to prove white superiority. More recently, the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal incorporated indigenous images, dances and slogans into their marketing strategy of friendship and openness, but Quebec refused to officially acknowledge the indigenous tribes as representing their own group of peoples. Even though some indigenous Greenlandic athletes have qualified for the winter Olympics over the years, they are not able to participate under their own flag, since only UN-registered nations are able to do so according to the Olympic National Commitee. Greenland, whose population is largely Inuit, is considered an autonomous constituent country within Denmark, so when athletes from Greenland qualify for the Olympics, they therefore have to represent Denmark, their former colonizers.

Several anthropologists have done work among indigenous sports teams in order to discover how these athletes understand culture, race, and themselves through their participation in sports. For example, in his fieldwork with a Lakota Basketball team on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, the anthropologist Alan Klein found that the young players use basketball as a way of dealing with the discrimination and racism they encounter by the predominately white spectators, players and judges. When they dominate on the court and win against the white teams, their victories come to represent a form of resistance and cultural pride. Stories of their triumphs are passed around their community and are retold alongside historical tales of Lakota heroism. Further, the anthropologist Domenica Gisella Calabro draws on fieldwork among Maori rugby players in New Zealand to argue that rugby becomes a site for fostering cultural pride and reaffirming athletes’ indigenous roots, for example through the haka, but also through the pride derived from knowing that some of the world’s best players and teams have Maori heritage.

The history of colonialism shows that sport can be used as a strategy for asserting control and dominance over people, but it can also work as a means for athletes to express resistance and social change. Despite the fact that basketball and rugby were forced upon indigenous peoples as a form of discipline, in some contexts these games have also been integrated with local meanings, purposes and emotions throughout the years. Through competition in international sports like rugby and basketball, as well as sporting events designed only for indigenous participation, native people therefore can contend with and change historical understandings of their place in the world.


Calabrò, Domenica Gisella (2012). “The Indigenization of rugby in New Zealand: Express of Māori rugby in contemporary society.” Humanities 1.1: 163-211.

Klein, Alan (2017). “Engaging Acrimony: Performing Lakota Basketball in South.” Sociology of Sport Journal: 1-31.

Brownell, Susan, ed (2008). The 1904 anthropology days and Olympic games: Sport, race, and American imperialism. University of Nebraska Press.

Photo under CCL:

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