Game of Bones

In this blog post, PDRA Morgan Ip discusses a bone game, called inugaq in the Qikiqtani region of Inuit Nunaat, and how it informs us about sites of collection.

Inugaq is an Inuit storytelling game made from the bones of seal flippers. Players pull out bones with a thread or sinew from a bag or mitten. Each player then constructs scenes of daily life from their collection of bones representing people, animals, or objects. First, one creates an outline of a snow or sod house, tent, boat or kayak. These are then populated and played with. There are variations in game play across Inuit Nunaat. For example, bones may be re-allocated between players, and another version involves tossing the bones in a series of duels, with an “upright” landing position determining a winner. 

I first encountered inugaq in 2006 in the Sanikiluaq Community Museum, where I was conducting previous research. The circular floor plans of snow houses in shadow box frames intrigued me, and provided a point of departure for my present and ongoing Arctic Cultures work on material culture that relates to concepts of architecture, dwelling and place.

My research through online database searches and correspondence with museum curators indicates a complete absence of inugaq in British collections. Why inugaq is missing from otherwise exhaustive Arctic ethnographic collections is curious, especially given the considerable presence of other Inuit games, such as ayagaq (pin-in-cup game) and tingmiujang (carved birds played as dice). Yet, discussion of inuguaq is also fairly rare in academic literature and in other European collections of Arctic material culture. In places where inugaq can be found, it is often poorly understood, as the nuances of gameplay and the meaning of the bones across Inuit Nunaat have not been well documented. 

In some museums I contacted, the game (or sets which may have been the game) was misplaced, the provenance unknown, and associated records transferred to another institution or lost. Furthermore, in every museum collection I investigated outside of Inuit Nunaat, inugaq has been stored or displayed without basic contextual data, and its previous use as a handling object is untraceable or poorly recorded. In several collections, such as the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, QC), the Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver, BC), and the Quai Branly Museum (Paris), associated online databases show bones laid out in neat rows or in a pile, again with scant information about how the game is played. This contrasts with how inugaq is portrayed within Inuit Nunaat. In local community displays in Sanikiluaq and Pangnirtung, Nunavut, the game dynamics are shown with bones presented in states of play. This is how I first was attracted to inugaq, after all.

Moreover, other cultural outputs present the game even more dynamically. In 1973, the National Film Board of Canada produced The Owl and the Raven, which depicts the birds playing the bone game before the main narrative of the story in which they paint each other in quliq soot. The owl and raven construct the outline of the igloo, then populate it with characters and play out a scene –  dogs pulling a sled and acquiring seals for dinner. Inugaq is similarly shown compellingly in other Inuit cultural representations. For example, in Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s novel, Sanaaq, originally published in Inuktitut in 1984, two characters are colourfuly described playing the game. They feast on seal flippers, and then collect, clean and play with the flipper bones. First, the bones are pulled from a mitten with a noose. The characters then construct an outline of a snow house and meat cache, and then play out a scenario which ends with two bone people, or pawns, fighting in the dueling action. This shows the variations of play that were missed or incomplete in the first written ethnographic accounts. 

It is evident that inugaq – its modes of play and associated bodies of knowledge and meaning – remains a living part of the cultural landscape of Inuit Nunaat. How this is represented in collections of material culture requires further study and collaborative effort to ensure that it is accurately shared and presented.


Image 1: Inugaq in play, and its component inugait in shadow boxes, as shown in the Sanikiluaq Community Museum, Nuiyak School, Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. Photographs by M.Ip, 2006.

Image 2: Map displaying sites of collection – sources and repositories – of inugaq and their exhibition status. Map drawn by M. Ip, 2023; Map data: GoogleEarth, Landsat / CopernicusData SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCOIBCAOU.S. Geological Survey. ©2023.