Reimagining the Creation: The ‘Missing Indigenous Link’ in the Origins of Canadian Hockey

By Paul W. Bennett

Few subjects in Canadian sport arouse as much passion as debating the origins of ice hockey, Canada’s mythical national pastime.  Hockey fans, hobbyists, and even a few sports scholars have been known to “mix it up” off the ice when the discussion inevitably returns to the hotly contested matter of “Creationism” versus “Evolution”: where and when did hockey first emerge?  Today avid hockey history partisans pour over obscure archival records, mine surviving newspapers, date Mi’kmaq hockey sticks, and assess decaying wooden pucks for further clues to hockey’s origins.  The popular Anglo-Canadian quest for the genesis of hockey continues unabated among defenders of rival geographic claims. One of the interesting things about these different claims, however, is that they all reflect a Euro-centric perspective on the development of the game.


Mi’kmaq making hockey sticks from hornbeam trees in Nova Scotia about 1890. Source: Wikipedia (open source).

For all the writing and talk devoted to debating hockey’s origins, we may be missing a critical piece of the history, obscured by settler colonialism: Indigenous presence on the land and its role in the development of Canadian sport. The settler colonizers, in Wolfe’s oft-quoted maxim, “come to stay: invasion is structure not an event.”[1]  If we accepted this point, if we confronted the limitations of the dominant setter colonial perspective and approached the whole question though a broader Indigenous lens – such as that of the Mi’kmaw people[2] – how might our conceptions of hockey’s origins change?  From that vantage point, the origin and evolution of the game begins to look more like a dynamic process of cultural exchange and transformation.  It involves stepping back and practicing what the Mi’kmaq call “two-eyed seeing.” This is, according to Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall, when we “ learn to see” from one eye with indigenous knowledge and the best of “Aboriginal ways of knowing,” and from the other eye with the “best in the Western (mainstream) ways of knowing” – and “learn to use both eyes together, for the benefit of all.”[3]

The Mi’kmaw Claim – from Duwarken to Hurley-on-Ice

The game of hockey most likely began with the First Nations, the people known in the Maritime region as the Mi’kmaq, and its history is being pieced together by First Nations experts like Michael Robidoux, Roger Lewis and Bernie Francis utilizing insights and research gleaned from an intimate knowledge of Mi’kmaw language, culture, and ways.[4]  That ground-breaking research will continue to focus on authenticating the existence of an early indigenous form of hockey in Mi’kmaki.’

The Harry Piers Ethnology Papers note that Dr. Jerry Lonecloud, a Mi’kmaq from Elmsdale NS, on October 8, 1913, described in vivid detail a traditional Mi’kmaw game called Duwarken, played on the ice.  Duwarken, he recounted, means “a ball played on ice.” In that game, “a round stone” was “hit on the ice” by a stick, most likely “a spruce root” which was called “Duwarkenaught.”  The stone ball was hit by a striker, causing the round stone to roll along the ice and be chased down by other players. The other players tried to interfere with the stone carrier and take it from him before it was returned to the striker. The player who returned it safely was permitted to hit the ball next. “The game,” Lonecloud told Piers, was “not played now” and had “been very long out of use,” but “the tradition” apparently remained.  More evidence: a little lake above Barren Lake, at the head of the Tusket River, near Nine-Mile Ridge, in Yarmouth or Digby County, NS, was known as “Duwarkenich” which means “place where they play duwarken.”[5]

Indigenous ice games existed in Mi’kmaw society at the time of, or shortly after, first contact with Europeans. The Mi’kmaw language contains words referring to field and ice games called “oochamkunutk,” that eventually melded with European-influenced ice hurley to become a distinct new game called “alchamadijik.”  Mi’kmaw language scholar Bernie Francis confirms that the Mi’kmaq had various ways of describing the act of playing hockey, varying by their location in the region. The word “alje’ma’tijik”, for example, is believed to have originated with Mi’kmaq living in what is now New Brunswick.  It translates into the phrase “they are playing hockey.”[6]  Taken together, the presence of such words and phrases testifies to the prevalence of early forms of the sport in Mi’kmaw society.

Mi’kmaw wood carvers were associated with the making of early hockey sticks. Discovering that the Mi’kmaq played duwarken with spruce roots, curator David Carter now contends, provides another missing link in the origin of the hockey stick. Studying the development of sticks from the 1830s to the 1930s, the hockey club may have originated with spruce roots and then melded with the stick used in the Irish ground game of hurley. The stick, according to Carter, is “a product of evolution and innovation from multiple sources.”[7] With their understanding of wood species and carving skills, the Mi’kmaq fashioned wooden handles and utilized their coopering tools to make the distinctive sticks.

Surviving sticks have been uncovered, one of which is made of darkened yellow birch, and has been carbon-14 dated to the period from 1633 to 1666.[8] By studying the surviving artifacts from material culture, handles and sticks, Carter is confident that the spruce root and the hurley-on-ice stick are early points in the evolution of the “MicMac” brand sticks, a forerunner of the modern hockey stick.[9]  With every new discovery, anthropologists and ethnologists are getting closer to explaining the points of cultural transmission, exploring in more depth the metamorphosis of the Mi’kmaw game into the emerging hybrid known as alchamadijk, the likely precursor to what we call ice hockey. [10]

The Wisdom of “Two-Eyed Seeing”

The unending debate over the origins of hockey is now on the verge of an epiphany. Today more and more Canadians are recognizing that Canada now includes its First Nations and their traditions and ways of knowing.  Ground-breaking books like Michael Robidoux’s Stickhandling through the Margins have the potential to bring First Nations hockey into sharper relief and the aboriginal contribution into the Canadian popular consciousness.[11] We are also discovering that the origins of hockey go back much earlier in time than previously recognized, as different aspects of the game emerged at different points and in various geographic places and that the Indigenous peoples made their own contribution to the origin and diffusion of the game.[12]

Squabbling over the “birthplace of hockey” in early British North America will eventually fade away. By embracing “Two-Eyed Seeing,” the veil covering the Indigenous contribution to Canada’s national game is lifted and we are better able to explore more fully both Indigenous and British North American contributions to the origins and early evolution of hockey. Playing stick games on ice, the introduction of skating, and the evolution of the stick all may end-up being the progeny of cultural contact and interchange, melding together Mi’kmaq and British North American practices, rules, and innovations.[13] If and when it does, hockey historians and enthusiasts alike will owe much to Elder Albert Marshall and the wisdom of Mi’kmaw ways of seeing and knowing.

Paul W. Bennett is the founding director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax, NS.


[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native,” Journal of Genocide Research, Vol 8, No. 4 (December 2006), 388.

[2]  First Nations hockey research in North America is still in its infancy, but the story lies embedded in Native oral and material culture. Michael A. Robidoux, Stickhandling through the Margins: First Nations Hockey in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), makes the connection between the sport and Native survival and points the way for further research.

[3] Oral Testimony of Elder Albert Marshall, Eskasoni Mi’Kmaw First Nation, Fall, 2004, in “Ta’ntelo’lti’k: Mi’kmaq Knowledge + Two-Eyed Seeing, “ presentation to Time and a Place Conference, University of Prince Edward Island, 13-18 June 2010.  See also Cheryl Bartlett, “Two-Eyed Seeing: The gift of multiple perspectives in scholarship,” University Affairs, February 6, 2012.

[4] Personal Interview, Roger Lewis, Ethnologist, Nova Scotia Museum, 15 May 2013; and E-Mail Correspondence, Lewis to David Carter, Curator, Nova Scotia Museum, 26 April 2013; Carter  to Lewis, 26 April 2013; and 30 April, 3013.

[5] Nova Scotia Museum, Harry Piers Ethnology Papers, Vol. 3, Dr. Jerry Stonecloud, Micmaq , Elmsdale, NS, to Harry Piers, 8 October 1913, 88.

[6]  E-Mail Correspondence, Bernie Francis to Roger Lewis, 30 April, 2013.

[7] E-Mail Correspondence, Carter to Lewis, 29 April, 2013.

[8]  See Tristan Hopper, “Artifact kindles debate on origins of hockey,” Yukon News, 12 April 2008.

[9] E-Mail Correspondence, Carter to Lewis, 29 April 2013; and 30 April 2013.

[10] A possible model for this challenging task of historical reclamation is Trudy Sable and Bernie Francis, The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki  (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2012)

 [11] Robidoux, Stickhandling through the Margins, 132-144.

[12] Paul W. Bennett, “Re-Imagining the Creation: “Two- Eyed Seeing” and the “Family Squabble” over the Origins of Canadian Hockey,” Presentation Paper, North American Society for Sports History (NSSH) Annual Conference, Saint Mary’s University, May 25, 2013

[13] Personal Interviews, Michael A Robidoux, University of Ottawa, 14 May 2012; and Roger Lewis, Nova Scotia Museum, 15 May 2012. See also David Carter to Roger Lewis, Nova Scotia Museum, 29 April 2012.


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