Shown are several different types of aboriginal games.

Common sense

Alan Sauve is a problem gambling counsellor achieving provincial recognition for his traditional aboriginal gaming program.

A local social worker is taking an innovative approach to reach at-risk teens about the dangers of gambling.

Alan Sauve is a problem gambling counsellor with the Terrace and District Community Services Society and is achieving provincial recognition for his traditional aboriginal gaming program.

The key to the program’s success, he says, is that it is both engaging and culturally relevant for First Nation youth.

I think it is just common sense, but a colleague said to me ‘Alan, if this was common sense, everyone would be doing it,’” he laughed.

His program is now part of the provincial government branch that monitors gaming and is making strides towards reconnecting aboriginal youth with their healthy gaming history – something he says is crucial to the culture moving forward.

It was very hard to find games that survived the residential school system,” Sauve said. “But we are looking at a region that is more than just steeped in culture; it’s redeveloping its culture.”

His program uses traditional aboriginal games to show First Nation teenagers and young adults the difference between their community-oriented history and impersonalized online and casino-based gambling.

Although gaming is part of our traditions, problem gambling isn’t. That’s where we have to make the distinction when we are talking about First Nations’ cultural influence,” Sauve said.

His aboriginal games youth program has got him invited to speak twice at the conferences in Prince George and once in Vancouver. The events included social workers from B.C. and Washington State who specialize in dealing with gambling problems.

Sauve, who is of Métis descent, says that he didn’t want to develop another program telling aboriginal people how to fix their social problems.

Traditional aboriginal games is a different approach, I looked at ways which we could educate people up here about the differences between traditional games and western gambling,” he said.

And because literacy is an issue, [I had to think about] how to get our message across. It is one thing to talk, but it is another thing to do,” he said of his modelling of the program.

He developed the aboriginal games sessions to keep youth engaged with material that is culturally relevant while teaching them about unhealthy risk-taking, something which he says can help prevent other social problems.

An Ontario survey into youth gambling in 2010 determined that 43 percent of youth Grades 7 to 12 had been involved with gambling activity and three percent of those students were already identified as problem gamblers, a statistic which Sauve suspects might be even higher in the north.

The survey showed that youth with gambling problems were more likely to experience psychological distress and were 18 times more likely to attempt suicide.

Sauve now holds half-day sessions for aboriginal youth to play the traditional games and learn about the risks involved in gambling.

As they play, I ask them questions about what they thought the ancestors were trying to teach us through these games,” he said.

Then he compares and contrasts the rounds played at traditional aboriginal ceremonies and now amongst the group of youth with the concept of western gambling.

The objective is to help youth understand unhealthy risks and behaviours associated with gambling as opposed to the community-building traditional games.

The richness of the community as a result of these games is something that is very important to aboriginal history and their social fabric today so Sauve hopes that his program will help reach aboriginal youth on a variety of levels.

Lahal (Slahal)

The name may vary depending on where you are in the Pacific Northwest, but the game that is known here as Lahal has stood the test of time and still remains popular at traditional ceremonies.

The home team uses their special set of four bones marked with different combinations of dots and lines and 10 counting sticks, five of which display the home team’s clan symbol. The bones are passed underneath blankets on the player’s laps while the team is drumming and chanting to distract their opponents. When the drumming stops, the opposing team takes a guess by using a distinctive hand signal to what combination of bone-patterns that other team is holding under the blankets. As a result, they either lose or collect a counting stick and the next round is given to the winning team.

Sauve notes the efforts to form a healthy environment of competition through this game is different from the modern concept of gambling.

Whatever you’ve brought and may have lost as a result of the game, you probably want it back in kind and that is very different from how we understand gambling in the western culture because the money goes from your pocket to the pit bosses or the machines,” he explained.

Western gambling is also very unpersonalized, you and the machine, you and the dealer, so there isn’t the communication and socialization that comes with these traditional games, like singing and drumming – a lot of lightheartedness and laughter. I don’t know if you’ve been in Chances lately, but I don’t hear any lighthearted laughter.”


This rambunctious game gets its name ‘Hubbub’ from players chanting “hub, hub” to distract the team trying to make their call before their time runs out. Various versions exist across North America, but one version uses five rocks as dice – two have crosses on them and three have stars – and tests the players’ abilities to recognize patterns.

When one team rolls the dice, each combination of symbols corresponds to a number which the “counter” has five seconds to determine. If they are correct, then they take one of the opposing team’s counting sticks and get to roll again. If they are wrong then they forfeit their points and have to give the roll to the opposing team.

Awithlknannai “fighting serpents”

Resembling a cross between chess, Chinese checkers, and Risk, the split diamond pattern on the board dictates the way a player can move. Two sets of different coloured rocks are placed running along one side and meeting half way on the centre row (pictured). One space is left in the middle for moving on the first round.

Each player takes turns moving one space, unless they are “jumping” an opposing player in which case they will move two spots. Because the object of the game is to remove all the opponent’s rocks from the board, players attempt to jump their opponents in a way that they won’t jump them right back.

It is a strategy game and [develops] problem solving skills,” said Sauve. He notes that it is different from western gambling because “occasionally there were friendly wagers placed on the game to provide incentives, but it is about skill and not about chance.

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