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Hand games: The heartbeat of the Dene nation sees a revival

It is a game that requires a level of skill, strategy, as well as a bit of stealth.
A team representing Lutsel K’e competes in a hand games tournament. Foreground, from left, J.C. Catholique, Archie Gahdele, Devon Catholique, Tommy Lafferty and Alfred Catholique. Photo courtesy of Archie Gahdele

It is a game that requires a level of skill, strategy, as well as a bit of stealth.

It is also a game steeped in Indigenous culture, and one gaining new popularity among young people in the NWT.

“It is part of who we are as Dene people,” said Archie Gahdele, a resident of Lutsel K’e and avid hand games player.

Traditional hand games have been around for generations, said Gahdele, who recalls his father telling him that visitors would arrive in his community by dog sled to hunt caribou and then afterwards, start a hand games tournament.

“The way that I was told by my late father, when people gathered there were a lot of people back then — they would have tournaments all night and, in the morning, there was another group of players who would also carry it on,” Gahdele said. “This would go on for about a week. These hand games were very popular back then.”

And when Gahdele himself was a child, he said he recalls seeing all the Elders gather in a tent to play hand games.

“Once they would start to play the drum, the whole tent would move. That is how powerful the drum is,” he said.

Elders eventually passed on, however, and with the advent of residential schools, children were taken away and traditions slowly faded in the absence of those who were meant to inherit them.

They weren’t forgotten, however, said Gahdele.

Through efforts of people like his late cousin, Gahdele said interest in playing hand games was renewed in his community.

“We went out two or three nights playing hand games with the younger generation (who were) 10 and 12 years old. Now, they are grown up and it is really popular in the community. That is where we are at today,” he said of the resurgence of his culture.

Playing hand games is not only a fun game for those playing, but for those watching it, according to Gahdele.

“It is really colourful to watch. Some of the moves, you don’t catch them, you know.

“That is what makes people want to watch. You make people laugh sometimes, and that is how the games are to be played,” he said.

“It’s a gathering that brings people together (from) the old to the young, to watch these games. Back in the early days, people back then, 70 or 75 years old — when they were growing up themselves, back then that is all they did, played hand games and lived off the land.”

“That is part of who they are.”

And while it is fun and interesting to watch, Gahdele said the games also have a higher purpose while bringing the community together.

“We get the young people to play the game, and I think what that does through those teachings is to have respect for the games and it is teaching them to be respectful and sober,” he explained. “I think that with a lot of social issues that have come around, it is one way to try to help the young people to get close to who they are and remind them that this is what belongs to them.

“Hopefully some of these ways also would counter any social issues. That is the thinking behind that today,” he said.

Gahdele looks forward to participating in his Dene tradition during the Georgie Marlowe Memorial Traditional Hand Games Tournament in Lutsel K’e during the weekend of Aug. 18.