Doronn Fox, Dene Games competitor, explains the history of hand games

Tryouts for the Yukon's Dene Games team at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games were held over the weekend in Whitehorse. The CBC's Max Leighton caught up with one of the competitors, who explained a bit about the traditional game that got him started more than 20 years ago.

'You're bringing them back to the land, you're bringing them back to culture'

'This game has hooked me for a long time,' said Doronn Fox, a former coach and AWG gold medallist. (Doronn Fox/Facebook)

Tryouts for the Yukon's Dene Games team at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games (AWG) were held over the weekend in Whitehorse.

About a dozen contestants came out to try their hand at several traditional events, including: finger pull, snowsnake, stick pull and hand games. 

Doronn Fox, 28, is a former coach and gold medalist in the Dene Games at AWG. He came out as a contestant this year, and will be heading to the South Slave AWGs in Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T., March 18 to 24

He spoke to the CBC's Max Leighton about hand games — a crowd favourite — in which contestants use hand gestures and elaborate signals, to find and conceal objects. It's been played for generations as a friendly form of gambling and competition across Dene traditional territories and beyond.

It's also the event that got Fox hooked on the Dene games more than twenty years ago. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What's the significance of hand games for Yukon First Nations athletes?  

Hand games have always been a love of a lot of Indigenous people here in the Yukon. All 14 nations are involved in hand games. We do it in the schools, we do it for tournaments, we do it for fun, we do it at events, all over.

It's one of the most sought-after sport at [AWG]s, there's a lot of spectators that show up. And in Greenland, we actually dominated three of the four gold medals.

Contestants taking part in hand games at the AWG Dene Games tryouts in Whitehorse on Sunday. (Max Leighton)

What's the story behind them? 

Well, as I have been told by my family, friends and elders, hand games was created a long time ago to settle land disputes. Land was fought for a long time ago, because of hunting rights, so instead of two territories fighting for that bit of land where animals were, they would develop this game so that hunters wouldn't get hurt.

Hand games were created as a necessity of the time. At the time, that was hunting to provide for your community. It moved into trading for bullets, knives, furs, stuff of necessity at the time. And obviously, what's the necessity now? Money. So when we go to tournaments, there's an entry fee that we pay to get in.

And our elders are now talking about the future and how hand games is going to be played for water, not money.        

How does it introduce young athletes to traditional teachings? 

We still make the drums traditionally. We hunt caribou in September so their skin is thin, the hoops are made from birch from this area. There's different ways to make it, but there's always a reason that you make it the way that you do. And when it's ripped or something happens to it, we do a ceremony. All those things are bringing back the teachings.

Matthew Brown drumming during the hand games, at the Yukon AWG Dene Games tryouts in Whitehorse Sunday. (Max Leighton)

Hand games is such a powerful one to explain. Basically, it's exciting, and kids want to be part of it, and you can win money, but as soon as they get hooked into hand games, you can start showing them the traditional aspects of it, like, 'you want a drum? This is how you get a drum. You have to go hunting.'

So you're bringing them back to the land, you're bringing them back to culture, there's teachings, there's ceremony. Hand games has been an opening for a lot of young people who haven't really gotten involved in traditional aspects of their culture.

Overall, how has interest in the Dene Games grown in your own lifetime?

The significance of the games has grown. When I first got part of the games, I just heard hand games and obviously I wanted to play that so I went running to the trials and I found out I had to do snowsnake, finger pull, pull push, stick pull, all these other events that I had no idea about. When I finally competed in it, I luckily made top four. I learned the history of the sports, I learned where they came from, as hunting and trapping techniques.

Young people in Yukon, including girls, playing hand games. A group in Yukon organized its first all women hand games tournament in 2016. (14 Nations Handgames Society/Facebook)

Now I teach in the schools. I teach Dene Games, I help with it, I teach the meanings. This game has hooked me for a long time. A lot of the young people that get involved in Dene games come from rough backgrounds like myself. A lot of them are in foster care, a lot of them are in hard times and just want to be involved in something, and this is a healthy sport and brings you back to the culture, back outside.

The comradery you build not only as team Yukon but the ones you build when you travel to Arctic Winter Games last a lifetime. I have friends from Nunavut that I met when I was nine years old.

About the Author

Max Leighton

Max Leighton is a producer and reporter for CBC Yukon. He's worked as a radio producer and news reporter for CBC in Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and Iqaluit.