Bringing the Guardian’s Game to Haida Gwaii

“If it calls to you, you should jump in,” says Great Owl Lightning.

They played with Ainu sticks, scored on a Haida cedar pole and practiced ‘spirit running’ over unbroken ground.

A group of youth from across Haida Gwaii recently learned a version of the indigenous games — variously known as the Guardians’ Game, the Creator’s Game, Bump Hips, or Little Brother of War — that gave rise to Western-style lacrosse.

“In the old days, the game was played very differently,” says Great Owl Lightning, who is Anishinaabe from Manitoulin Island.

“In my territory, they would actually play the game so you had to climb up a cliffside to get where the goal is at,” he said, laughing.

“The game made people strong.”

While lacrosse is played on a cleared field with goals at either end, the Guardian’s Game that Great Owl brought to Haida Gwaii uses a single goal. Teams need spirit-running skills to leap and roll parkour-style over creeks, logs and other barriers.

Here the youth played with the bamboo sticks traditionally made by the Ainu people of Japan, but in other places, sticks were made with local woods such as hickory. They could be long or short, and some even played with one in each hand.

After three days of after-school workshops on spirit running and shinai stick fighting in the Skidegate Youth Centre, Great Owl said the youth performed a ceremony together with Haida elders before playing a full game the next morning along the coast.

“They seemed to really love it,” he said.

Based in Fremont, California, Great Owl also teaches Guardian Art — a self-defence based on indigenous traditions.

Besides his home in Whitefish River First Nation, Guardian Art runs programs on the Lil’wat First Nation of B.C., and in the U.S. it has locations outside San Francisco as well as in Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Ohlone territories.

“We go into Mexico as well, and across the waters to Asia,” said Great Owl, adding that versions of Guardian Art and the Guardians Game were practiced across the Americas, and beyond, so it’s now a good way to connect youth with the world.

“We’re showing just how connected First Nations cultures were, long ago,” he said.

“First Nations people have been networking across the world forever.”

This July, Great Owl invited youth from Haida Gwaii to join a week-long ceremony and pole raising hosted by the Whitefish River First Nation on Birch Island, in Lake Huron.

After several days of intense training, the new pole will be used to play a game that will go from dusk to dawn.

“It comes from First Nations culture, but it’s open to anyone to practice,” said Great Owl.

“If it calls to you, you should jump in.”