It's a game of intimidation. And this weekend in Whati, N.W.T., there were $60,000 in cash prizes at stake.

"The whole point is just a guessing game,” said Dolphus Nitsiza, who was on the organizing committee for the Dene hand games tournament.

“But the key is to kind of psych them out and get them pumped. Once you get them up, the momentum … just drives the whole crowd and drives the whole community and the community backs up each other with the drumming."

The accompanying chanting and drumming is meant to throw off the confidence of the other team's leader.

The first annual Whati Charlie Zoe Nitsiza Men's Handgame Tournament wrapped up on Sunday.

Intimidation team

And now they come up to the rhythm of the drums, waiting for the other team to guess which hand they're holding the objects in. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

Forty-two teams and more than 500 people from across the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta travelled to the tiny community — 160 kilometres north of Yellowknife — to compete.

Many drove in via the ice road. The furthest teams travelled 16 hours from communities like Colville Lake, N.W.T.

Sidney Tutcho, A 22-year-old player who drove 16 hours from Deline, N.W.T. to Whati, said he couldn't wait to play in such a big tournament.

"It's been passed down from generation to generation and it's really good for our people to come together and just to enjoy it, to have fun with it," he said.

Tutcho started learning the game when he was just a young boy.

"When I'm in the moment … you have that feeling, that exciting feeling that you'll just give it and then you'll know when it happens," he said.

"It's kind of hard to explain, but it's really an incredible feeling once you start playing and once you get it [the rhythm], it's just incredible."

Major event

With a population of less than 500, this tournament was a major event for Whati.

Trapping, hunting and fishing are the main economic activities in this Tlicho community. There are no hotels or restaurants, so figuring out where to feed and house the hundreds of guests made the tournament a community effort.

Each team paid more than $1,000 to register for the games. All the money went into the pot. In all, there was $60,000 at stake this weekend.

Winter Road, Sam Mantla's team from Garneti, N.W.T., was the grand prize winner this weekend.

'I don't think it's the money, just the pure fact of just playing against other people and at the same time, too, just enjoying the game itself.'- Peter Husky

But many players say they hardly think about the money as they are highly focused on the game — intimidating rival teams to make them lose confidence in guessing — and overall, on having fun.

"I don't think it's the money, just the pure fact of just playing against other people and at the same time, too, just enjoying the game itself," said Peter Husky, a participant from Fort Smith, N.W.T.

"What's really important is having fun out there and showing how you got it,” Tutcho added.

“Different communities have their own different ways [of playing the game] and for me, I just really enjoy it and enjoy people and seeing new faces and just the fun of it."

And after 16 hours of driving from Deline, Tutcho said a little bit of fun and traditional sport goes a long way.

The Whati Charlie Zoe Nitsiza Men's Hand Game Tournament was held in memory of elder Charlie Zoe Nitsiza, who loved playing hand games until he died two years ago while trapping on the land.

The CBC's Harriet Paul was in Whati this weekend. Listen to her interviewing the tournament organizers in the Dogrib language.

Her hour-long program, Tide Godi, highlights news and stories for Dogrib listeners throughout the southern Mackenzie Valley.

How the Dene hand games work:

  • Teams of eight compete against each other by guessing which hands the opposing players are using to hide a token, such as a coin or pebble.
  • The guesser is on the opposite team of the ones hiding the token in their hands. If the guesser correctly guesses the hand, the player holding the token is out.
  • For each incorrect guess, the team hiding the token gets a stick.
  • Players are eliminated for incorrectly guessing twice and are awarded sticks for each correct guess until the winning team earns all 21 sticks.
  • Traditionally, the games are played by men whose ages range from 16 to 90. The games also include hand drummers and singers as young as seven.

With files from the CBC's Alyssa Mosher