Teams in Deline handgames tournament vie for $75,000 prize

The population of Deline has doubled in size this weekend, as the community's second bi-annual men's hand games tournament gets underway. The Dene First Nation community, which sits on the shore of Great Bear Lake, is hosting more than 400 competitors and fans for the high-stakes tournament.

Organizers welcome more than 400 visitors for weekend, say more communities are starting to play handgames

The population of Deline, N.W.T., has ballooned this weekend as it welcomes visiting competitors and spectators for its second bi-annual men's handgames tournament. 

The Dene First Nation community, which sits on the shore of Great Bear Lake, is hosting more than 400 competitors and fans for the high-intensity competition. The first place team will win $25,000, or $2,500 per player.

'Whoever falls down, that's too bad!' 

The Dene history of handgames goes back hundreds of years. 

Moris Neyelle, one of the tournament organizers, remembers the first handgames tournament he witnessed in the '50s.

The men would play for two, three, four days, he recalled. 

"All night, all day — whoever falls down, that's too bad!" He said with a laugh. "That's how they challenged each other."

Deline Chief Leonard Kenny remembers his first tournament as well, when 60 dog teams from the Tlicho region of the Northwest Territories rolled into Deline for a big tournament in 1968. 

Kenny, who was a young boy at the time, says community members had to keep checking their fish nets to make sure there was enough food not only for the visitors, but also for their teams of dogs.

Players and spectators watch on as organizers announce the match-ups for the first round of the tournament. (Lawrence Nayally/CBC)

Handgames spreading

This year, a few dozen people from the community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, located 500 kilometres northeast of Deline, were expected to show up for the tournament, to cheer on the teams. 

Neyelle says the people of Deline have a long history with Kugluktuk. Inuit people from the Northwest Passage area used came overland to Great Bear Lake to make a sleigh out of logs to take back to Kugluktuk, he explained. 

"Because they don't have logs," he said. "That's how they [the two communities] know each other." 

Kenny said in 2007, about 70 skidoos from Deline and the Tlicho First Nation region travelled up to Kugluktuk to play handgames and teach people there how to play.

"It really catches on," said Kenny. "It's played everywhere. I think that's one of our pride as Dene people." 

Kenny said all Dene are encouraged to wear their traditional vests during the tournament, to show their pride. 

How it works

These hand-whittled sticks are used for keeping score. (Lawrence Nayally/CBC)

Handgames were traditionally played by men.

Two teams kneel on the ground facing each other. One team goes first, with each team member hiding a small object in one hand or another. Part of the game is shifting the item from one hand to the other as they dance to a drum beat. When the time is right, a player on the opposing team must guess how many players have the object in their left or right hand and what the split is. They do this using a variety of hand gestures. Sticks are used to count points. 

The tournament runs until Sunday.