'Quick learner': Behchoko teacher from Ontario joins Dene hand games

A teacher from Ontario is turning heads in the N.W.T. for taking up traditional Dene hand games. 'I'd say I earned a little extra street credit from those guys,' says Anthony Andrew.

'He's a typical first-timer... I just told him, 'Follow the drumbeat and you should be good''

Anthony Andrew, left, and Rusty Mantla, far right, playing in a handgames tournament. Andrew, originally from Ontario, has been taking part in the games and learning their cultural significance. (submitted)

A new hand games player is turning heads in the Northwest Territories.

Anthony Andrew — who identifies as part Irish, Portuguese and East Indian — has taken up the traditional Dene game. It's played by hiding and guessing objects while using hand signals to throw off your opponent — most of whom are aboriginal men and boys.

Originally from Barrie, Ont., Andrew has been teaching at Behchoko's Chief Jimmy Bruneau School for about two years, and says he saw the "hype" around the cultural event at school.

Attending his first event — a tournament in Whati — with his friend Rusty Mantla was an eye-opener.

"I had no idea what was happening," Andrew said with a laugh.

Mantla, a long-time player, convinced Andrew to try it out himself.

"After playing a couple days, I really took an interest in it," Andrew said. "I wanted to learn more about the game."

Mantla says Andrew is a "quick learner."

"He was kind of hesitant at first," Mantla said. "He's a typical first-timer... I just told him, 'Follow the drumbeat and you should be good.'"

'Very big culture shock'

Andrew also wanted to learn the culture behind the games.

"I'd never really done anything like this before," he said. "So to me, this was a very big culture shock to see how different their culture is from mine and how much I enjoyed it."

Mantla thinks it will make a difference for Andrew in his job, as well.

"He sees it every day at school," Mantla said. "I think for him to understand our culture, it would help him understand the students and our way of life."

Mantla has been happy to show off his traditions.

"It's always good to learn or understand another culture," he said. "If I were to go to his hometown... I'd like to know, or understand his."

As for his students, Andrew says they were thrilled to see him taking part, after urging him to play for so long.

"I'd say I earned a little extra street credit from those guys," he laughed.

Andrew plans to put his new skills to use. 

"I had so much fun. I was telling the guys I would love to do it again some time if they would have me on their team."

They just might: Mantla and Andrew are looking ahead to a hand games tournament in Fort Smith in June.

With files from Trails End