'An army behind you': A CBC reporter's reflections on his first Dene hand games tournament
CBC's Alex Brockman writes about his weekend playing hand games in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.
Alex Brockman is a CBC North reporter who often travels to the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories for stories. Last weekend, he was drafted onto a hand games team competing in the Fort Good Hope / Colville Lake Oudzi tournament in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.
I stare across the mat at Wilbert Kochon and his team of Sahtu chiefs lined up across my team, feeling as if I've just stepped into the ring with heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
As we prepare to start, they're already talking a little trash. If I'm not careful, they say, I'll be walking the 800 kilometres through the snow back to Yellowknife.
The grins on their faces tell me that they're joking. But I wonder, "What if they're serious?"
That's a long walk back.
This is my introduction into hand games, a Dene sport of deception and sleight of hand. It involves two teams who hide tokens from each other, gaining sticks for each successful deception.
The first team to win all the sticks wins a set. The first team to win two sets wins a match, like in tennis.
I'm here to cover the tournament in Fort Good Hope, but was drafted onto a team Friday night — probably not one of their first choices.
Despite the welcome invitation to get down on the mat, I'm nervous.
This is a new experience for me in a cultural setting I'm still learning about and have yet to fully understand. I want to show respect to my hosts and be a good guest.
Most importantly, I don't want to let my teammates down.
But after four matches over Friday and Saturday, I experienced a bit of this beautiful game and saw why players keep coming back year after year.
As I take my place on the mat for my match against the Sahtu chiefs, Terry Eddibar from Colville Lake leans in with some supportive words.
"Don't worry, you have an army behind you," he says, pointing to the drummers taking their place behind me.
As we play, their songs reverberate through the hall, getting louder and louder as the game moves on.
The beat is deafening, especially when it's time for the Sahtu chiefs to hide their stones. Our captain, David Codzi, acts as the shooter and weeds out which hand the players on the other team are using to hide their respective stones.
My turn hiding the stone is a disaster.
Leonard Kenny, a former chief from Deline, seems to know which hand I've placed the stone in before I do, and he guesses correctly within a few seconds of me pulling my hands out from underneath the jacket I've used to hide it.
"You kept pulling the hand with the stone in it out first," Kenny told me after our match. "I'd know which hand you had the stone, then I'd move on to the rest of your team.
"From now on, pull out both hands at the same time, and hold them together," he said. "That's the last piece of free advice I'm going to give you."
Hand games almost disappeared about 20 years ago, but they have been reviving on the strength of these tournaments. It's easy to see why — the energy, camaraderie and pure fun I saw over the weekend seems impossible to match.
The Friday night match between the hometown elders team and a team from nearby Tulita, N.W.T., felt like being at a championship fight, with more than 100 people gathered round, drumming and cheering the two sides on.
Even though I wasn't very good, I only received support and kindness from everyone there. As my teammate John Tobac said during our match, "Just keep going."
And that's what I did.
I played to win, did my best and had a lot of fun with everyone who gathered in Fort Good Hope last weekend.
Sunday at dinner, I sat with Thomas (Bigman) Manuel and his family, reflecting on the weekend.
"See you in Behchoko, bud," he said, referring to the $100,000 hand games tournament in that community coming up later this spring.
Bigman, after this last weekend in Fort Good Hope, I think I just might see you there too.
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