The Salt River First Nation held its Treaty Land Entitlement Celebration late last month, which was a big enough event in its own right.
One of the big highlights, though, was the Salt River First Nation Men’s Hand Games Tournament, where a purse of $75,000 was up for grabs with $40,000 for first place.
This year, it was Straight Outta Behchoko, captained by Cody Mantla, which took top spot as they beat Team Sahtu in the final on June 24. Team Sahtu took home $20,000 as the runner-up.
Mantla said the nerves were there in the final moments of the match.
“The feeling when we were on the verge of winning the last few sticks, I was in shock but pumped at the same time,” he said. “The adrenaline was well over the limit. Kids and the people kept the whole thing going (and the) drums were beating at the same time as my heartbeat.”
Mantla admitted he didn’t think his team would come out on top but he was super excited once his team got the last stick.
He was even more excited knowing his son was watching back home in Behchoko on livestream.
“When I returned back home, I re-watched the videos and I asked my son ‘where is daddy?’ and he pointed on the screen ‘there you are, daddy’,” he said.
A total of 17 teams took part in the tournament, which would be a good number in some tournaments, but things were way down this year, said Peter Daniels, the tournament’s co-ordinator.
“We had 32 teams last year,” he said. “It’s only speculation on my part but maybe some communities were having their own events for National Indigenous Peoples Day and that could have stopped some teams from travelling but we were still happy to see so many teams come and take part.”
Watching handgames for the first time can be an experience but also fun to watch, especially when the players are right into it.
Mantla said he likes to jazz things up a bit.
“I really enjoy putting on a show for the people and having fun and keeping the traditional games strong,” he said.
Daniels agreed with Mantla, saying handgames nowadays is geared toward the crowds.
“People love to watch the action and the different moves,” he said. “I think most people enjoyed this year’s tournament.”
Keeping the tradition going is important to both Mantla and Daniels.
Mantla said he thinks some elders miss the old days but they probably also enjoy seeing the younger players pick up the torch, so to speak.
“It’s really like a mirror because I think the elders imagine their reflection in the young generation (and) how good life was when they moved harder than us,” he said.
“It brings back a lot of memories for the elders,” added Daniels. “They can remember the way it was played before it became cash games, all originally for good times and as a social gathering. As time went on, it became something you played if you needed goods or supplies and now they play for big money.”
Daniels said something which makes this tournament different from others is the large gaps in between games, largely due to the organizers wanting the players to experience the celebration as a whole.
“Every tournament has lunch or supper breaks but we have lengthy breaks because we want people to enjoy the entertainment,” he said. “We had several musical acts this year and we wanted everyone to take all of that in and really have them enjoy the entire weekend.”
The win for Mantla’s team was the second this year; they won the handgames tournament in their home community earlier this year.
They didn’t compete this past weekend in Fort Simpson and Mantla said there were a couple of good reasons for that.
“The team is resting and planning on attending the Mackenzie Days in Fort Providence,” he said. “Also, I have meetings to attend and the team doesn’t want to play without me.”