Nfld. & Labrador

Grenfell prof puts spotlight on ancient Mi'kmaq game Waltes

An anthropology professor is digging deep to document an aboriginal game.
Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell, left, faced off against Grenfell Campus v-p Mary Bluechardt, right, in a Waltes demonstration at the university in February. (Grenfell Campus)

A professor at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook is shining a light on an ancient Mi'kmaq game that fell out of use in recent decades, but is now experiencing a resurgence.

Anthropologist Angela Robinson has been studying the game Waltes for two years and said she does not yet know exactly how old it is, although it pre-dates Europeans' arrival to the continent.

"As a pre-contact artefact, it had a central meaning for Mi'kmaq people. It had a spiritual dimension, it had a historical dimension," Robinson told CBC's Central Morning Show.

It's very, very complicated.- Angela Robinson

Robinson said the game was widely played in Atlantic Canada and for a number of reasons — from celebrating a wedding to settling scores.

"Hunting territories could be determined this way, the location of game perhaps. Things associated with healing," said Robinson.

The way to play

Waltes is one variation on a dice-and-bowl game played by indigenous peoples across North America, according to Robinson.

The game is played with six dice, several notched sticks and smooth ones, all inside a wooden bowl. (Grenfell Campus)

There are 51 playing sticks — four of them notched — along with six decorated dice made of bone, along with a wooden bowl.

"There's a lot of counting involved and it's very, very complicated," said Robinson.

"The object of the game is to get all the sticks from your opponent, that's when you win."

To do so, Robinson said you put the dice into the bowl and knock it against a soft surface such as a blanket to toss the dice.

"Depending on which way these dice land determines whether or not you get a point or more," said Robinson.

"It's not a skill game, as such, its more of a, to me, a game of chance."

Traditions lost and found

Robinson said the game struggled to retain its central role once European missionaries arrived in Atlantic Canada.

She said in Cape Breton many Waltes bowls had holes bored into their bottoms.

"Some people say that the missionaries did that because they didn't want them playing these magical games. They wanted Catholicism to be the focal point," Robinson said.

After that, the residential school system further alienated people from the game.

"Since there were no cultural beliefs or practices or values encouraged at the schools, it lost some of its resonance as a centrepiece of culture."

Angela Robinson, centre, explains the complicated rules of scoring in Waltes. (Grenfell Campus)

But Robinson said Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work helped put an emphasis on reclaiming lost practice.

That's meant Waltes has been increasingly featured in aboriginal events and gatherings.

"People felt that [Waltes] needed to be included because it was something that they had lost," she said.

In that spirit, Robinson held an event at Grenfell Campus on Feb. 9 that featured a talk about Waltes, with people playing the game afterward.

With files from Melissa Tobin