An ancient Gwich’in tradition thundered through the streets of Inuvik this weekend, shattering glass ceilings and helping people reconnect with their heritage.

Competitors from across the Gwich’in Settlement Area and beyond were in Inuvik June 24 to 26 for a regional hand games tournament — the first one to be held in the area for a long time. Seven teams from as far away as Fort Good Hope came out for the games.

“It was just a desire and a dream for many of us to make it happen,” said tournament operator Wilfred Johnston, who travelled from Yukon to run the whole thing. “We were approached from the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Western Arctic Youth Collective to come up and teach everyone handgames. They’ve known us for a while and hand games are very well known in Yukon and the Northwest Territories.”

A battle of wills, hand games are a historic practice of Gwich’in culture. Two teams line up opposite each other, backed up by a group a drummers, and each member of one team hides a token or rock in one of their hands. Drums are struck in unison to reflect the human heartbeat and bring up the energy in the room. The other team then has to guess which hand the rock is in.

If the team guesses correctly, the person holding the rock is out, and the process continues until all the rock holders get caught and the teams switch roles. But if incorrectly guessed, the team hiding their rock gets a stick as a point. Whichever team has the most sticks at the end wins the round and gets a game stick. Matches are determined by a best-of-three rounds.

Efforts have been ongoing to provide spaces for hand games following the removal of Covid-19 public health restrictions in the NWT, but this was the first time since before the pandemic a tournament has been held in the Beaufort Delta. Sponsored by the Gwich’in Tribal Council and organized by the Western Arctic Youth Collective, the tournament drew 42 competitors, both men and women.

Along with the tournament are other traditions being resurrected, particularly the return of women to competitive hand games.

“People say that women used to play a long time ago,” said Angela Code, who competed in the tournament. “After the imposition of Christianity, it may have changed things a bit where women are not allowed to play in some communities. But in the Yukon, women are not only allowed to play, they’re very much supported.

“With the Beaufort Delta region there’s a strong connection with the Dempster highway passing through to Whitehorse, so we are playing Yukon rules where everyone is welcome.

“It’s been a really good turnout because a lot of the players here are women.”

In the end, the Blah Blah Blahs walked away with the prize.

Although the teams have headed home, Johnston said he hopes the experience was fun enough for teams to form and move around the Delta.

“Big thank you to the Gwich’in Tribal Council and Western Arctic Youth Collective for making this possible. Thank you to my entire team for showing up, the way they are drumming and playing.

“We’re encouraging all Gwich’in and Inuvialuit to keep the game going on in our absence.

“Don’t wait until we come back, but we will be back.”

Eric Bowling

Your source for all things happening in the Beaufort Delta. Eric jumped at the chance to write for the Inuvik Drum after cutting his teeth in Alberta. He enjoys long walks, loud music and strong coffee....

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