British Columbia

Traditional guessing competition goes virtual for National Indigenous Peoples Day

Slahal, a popular Indigenous game, gets a Zoom-based tournament amid COVID-19 concerns. It's one of many ways people have shifted the annual celebration online.

Slahal, or hand game, gets a Zoom-based tournament amid COVID-19 concerns

The hand game, also known as the bone game, is a traditional Indigenous pursuit often played during powwows. A tournament for Sunday's National Indigenous Peoples Day is being organized online amid physical distancing concerns. (Savage Society/Facebook)

When the summer solstice comes around, Kelsey Kanatan Wavey would usually be celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day with a big crowd.

The annual June 21 event is a celebration First Nations, Inuit and Metis culture, headlined by festivals with food, dancing and games. But this year, with restrictions on mass gatherings in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities have had to adapt.

"I think it's been challenging," said Wavey, who is Cree. "But just because we can't gather doesn't mean we shouldn't be celebrating ourselves."

Wavey is among many Indigenous organizers overcoming the hurdle of physical distancing for the 2020 holiday. She's a member of Savage Society, an Indigenous-led arts and theatre company based in Vancouver.

To mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, she's leading a virtual tournament of a game that's been played at gatherings for centuries. It's called slahal, or the hand game.

"Even with the pandemic happening, we can't lose sight of our connection, and that's what makes us strong," she said.

And even though players are sitting behind computer screens, Wavey says the game is bringing more people together than ever before.

Players from Nlaka’pamux territory near Lytton in B.C.'s southern Interior are among those playing in the virtual tournament. (Savage Society/Facebook)

Slahal

For generations, many Indigenous peoples and communities have celebrated near June 21 due to the significance of the summer solstice as the longest day of the year. The holiday was recognized by the federal government in 1996.

Slahal has long been a cornerstone for community events. Wavey said traditionally it's been thought of as a gambling game, or a way to redistribute wealth, while having fun.

Players are divided into teams, with a player on one side concealing a marked bone in one of their hands. Players on the opposite team have to guess which hand it's in. It's a challenge filled with distractions, music and laughs.

"The whole game you're trying to trick the other team into thinking the bone is in another hand, you're making noise, you're playing drums, you're singing and having a good time," said Wavey.

The same rules apply to the virtual tournament that Wavey and the team at Savage Society are hosting along with dance performances, spoken word poetry and live music.

"Through all these years we have these stories about people playing slahal, about our relatives and our ancestors playing slahal, and we're still playing them to this day," said Wavey. "It's such a beautiful symbol of Indigenous resilience that centres around love and fun and hanging out with the community."

An added bonus of the virtual format: it allows people from remote areas to join in on the fun.

"In some ways it's bringing us closer together. We wouldn't be able to have a slahal tournament with people from all over, from different nations, from all over Turtle Island in real life," she added. "Virtually, it's way more accessible."

Hundreds of people attended a festival to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day at Trout Lake in Vancouver in 2019. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Other B.C. celebrations

In Vancouver, organizers decided not to move forward with an annual celebration at Trout Lake. Instead, many other events across B.C. have shifted online

The Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, for example, are hosting virtual gatherings and craft demonstrations.

The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society has led a series Cree and Chinook culture and language courses online to mark the annual date.

The Carnegie Community Centre is also hosting virtual celebration with livestream performances, storytelling, and artist talks.

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