Keeping Dene Culture Alive

The Dene community of Fort Simpson almost doubled in population during the 4th Annual Men’s Handgames Tournament as they welcomed spectators, drummers, and handgame players to the community. Fort Simpson is a larger First Nations Dene community located where the two rivers meet – the Liard River and The Mackenzie River – and they expected roughly 300-500 people for a highly intense competition.

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This year, they hosted 19 teams and about 300 people into the community. Many folks traveled by road, by air and by boat to take in the festivities. It was pretty neat to see first hand how the tournament was organized; they had a designated area in the community for people to camp, there was drum dances every night, the hand games committee provided the players dinners and made sure that all visitors were well taken care of.

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Traditionally, the men played the hand games as a way of survival. Often times the Dene men would be out hunting for long periods of time and would play hand games while they were out on the land. It’s known back then as a trading game, for things like furs, bullets, food, guns, and dog teams – anything useful for survival out on harsh land conditions. Sometimes the game would be played for long periods of times, last for hours or even days.

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The hand games competition can be quite confusing for somebody who has never seen it played before. There is people crowed into a tight circle, the is drummers singing surrounding the hand game players and the players are seated or kneeling on the mats chanting, hiding their token and/or making hand gestures.

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The energy produced by these men wearing their traditional hand made vest, singing their hearts out, drumming and handgame gestures is quite euphoric. It’s almost like you want to jump right in there and start drumming or playing the game too.

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Usually teams of eight compete against each other, sitting face-to-face kneeling on a mat, guessing which hands the opposing players are using to hide the token, such as a coin or a small rock.

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The guesser is on the opposite team of the ones hiding the token in their hands. If the guesser correctly guesses the hand with the token, he is then out. For each incorrect guess, the team hiding the token gets a stick.

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The team hiding the token will continue to get sticks until everyone on their team is out.

It is played best out of three format; once a team wins two rounds of 21 sticks, they win that entire game and goes on to play entirely new team.

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There was an overall sense of pride from everyone involved. There were grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, youth, toddlers and babies all gathered into one place to socialize, to teach one another, to celebrate a culture and a everlasting tradition.

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 – Shawna McLeod 

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