Snow snake over soccer – youth in the Northwest Territories are opting more often to compete in traditional sports at the Arctic Winter Games.
In the last decade, the Aboriginal Sport Circle in the territory says there has been a surge of interest. Dene games events are: snowsnake, hand games, finger pull, pole push and the stick pull.
"If you would have went into a community 10 years ago and said 'hey, show me a snow snake,' they probably wouldn’t have. Now they do," said Greg Hopf, the organization’s executive director.
Events like the snowsnake, finger pull and stick pull are rooted in skill, traditionally meant to sharpen hunting abilities.
In Aklavik, teachers there are a part of the community-based push for traditional sports.
Courtney Charlie, 14, trains after school for her favorite event — the finger pull. Soon, she’ll be off to compete at the Arctic Winter Games.
"It makes me feel good, like I'm going back to the land, the roots, my ancestors’ way of life," she said.
Hopf said there are more people in communities who can coach Dene games as opposed to more common sports such as hockey or soccer.
He said it’s also easier to help a young budding athlete in a remote community to train for a Dene games event rather than getting enough players together for a more mainstream team event.
For huge competitions like the Games, athletes must choose between traditional and mainstream sports.
"If a kid in a community is faced with a choice, ‘do I compete in hockey or do I go with Dene games,' obviously they're going to turn to people they trust for answers … I think that people in the communities are promoting Dene games as well," he said.
The Aboriginal Sport Circle is thrilled with the growth of Dene games' popularity. However, it doesn't support the big money hand games tournaments where winning teams can pocket up to $50,000 for the top prize. The organization says that sends the wrong message.
For the Aboriginal Sport Circle, the Arctic Winter Games are a closer reflection of what traditional competitions were really about — community and culture.