Dene hand games

A demonstration of Dene hand games occurs in the Midnight Sun Recreation Centre in Inuvik. More than 500 people are travelling to Whati, N.W.T., this weekend, for its first-ever hand games tournament. (CBC)

“This place will be hopping,” says Whati chief Alfonz Nitsiza.

This weekend, close to 1,000 people are expected to arrive in the community of less than 500.

The occasion is a Dene hand games showdown in honour of elder Charlie Zoe Nitsiza, who loved the games right up until he died a few years ago while out trapping.

Forty-two teams from the NWT and northern Alberta are already registered to take part in the traditional games, an elaborate event where teams compete by trying to guess which hand opposing players are using to hide a token.

Traditional drumming and drum dancing will accompany the event this weekend, with drummers as young as seven.

But the first challenge will be housing and feeding all of the guests.

In Whati, 160 kilometres north of Yellowknife, trapping, hunting and fishing are the main economic activities. The community has lots of bears, caribou, wolves and eagles, but no hotels or restaurants.

Mary Ann Jeremick'ca, who is on the hand games committee, says they're working to make sure everyone has someplace to sleep.

She’s calculated that the school’s nine classrooms can lodge 15 people each.

“We're also getting 60 cots from the armed forces,” Jeremick’ca says.

The committee has hired cooks and security to stay at the school, and there will also be concessions around Whati selling food.

A makeshift cafeteria in the school gym plans to serve caribou meat and fish. People from the nearby community of Deline also plan to bring caribou meat to the event.

“I think we can handle it,” says Nitsiza, who seems to feel hospitality is part of the point.

But for those travelling to the event, the prize money is also an attraction.

The best team in the event will win $20,000, with total prize money to be paid out totalling $60,000.

“You gotta work hard for that,” says Nitsiza, who’s expecting a high level of play.

“The other day an elder was telling me that these young guys are pretty tricky… they’re getting really, really smart.”