Meet the Fort Good Hope hand game family dynasty

The Tobac family from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., started a hand games team together. They say it's a way to have fun, while also protecting their traditional culture.

'We support each other through everything,' John Tobac says

The Tobac family team after one of their hand games at the tournament in Tulita. Top row left-right: Evan Tobac, Shaun Tobac, John Tobac, Jim Tobac, photo bomber Jude Tatcheron and Jesse Tobac. Bottom left to right: Joseph Tobac, Carl Tobac and Buddy Gully. Missing is Dino Turo. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Eight members of the Tobac family descended on Tulita, N.W.T., by speedboat earlier this month to try something new. 

They're all part of the same hand games team, one of 25 who tried to win $100,000 at the Treaty 11 celebrations in that community.

Shawn Tobac, one of the family's younger members, said they've been talking about taking on the tournaments together as a team for a while. 

But this year, after the pandemic, it became a reality, John Tobac said. 

"I guess communities miss each other, so if one family [member] goes up, we want to be there to help them out," he said. 

"During the pandemic, we really missed the feeling [of hand games]. So it's been awesome up to this point." 

The Tulita tournament is only the second game for all of them as a family. The first time they played together was at a smaller tournament in Deline. 

A way to preserve their culture  

The Tobacs found their way to hand games at different times and stages in their lives. 

Jim Tobac said he's been playing since at least 2010, whereas his nephew Joseph only started a couple years ago. 

All of them decided to get involved with hand games to keep their ancestors' cultural practices alive. 

"When I was growing up, we never saw hand games," Jim Tobac said. 

The Tobac team in action. They say they all joined in on the sport to preserve their ancestors' culture. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

In the last 10 years, Tobac said there's been a renewed interest in the activity in Fort Good Hope. 

Before then, it was seen as a game only for older people. As more youth tournaments were organized, more and more young men like his nephew started to gravitate to them, he continued. 

"It's [also] a lot of fun," Joseph Tobac added. 

'We support each other through everything'

Some of the Tobacs weren't as keen to join a family team, and needed to be persuaded to get involved. 

"[My sons] asked me to play with them, and I couldn't refuse," John Tobac said. 

The Tobacs aren't the only family hand games team. Jim Tobac said he was inspired to start his own by watching the Tanetons from Deline. 

Jim Tobac, centre, and one of his nephews watches another hand game team at the Tulita tournament. Tobac said interest in the games resurfaced recently, after Fort Good Hope planned more youth tournaments. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"Everything they did was awesome to watch," he said. "So I thought I'd get into it with my nephews and my brother." 

There are advantages to taking on a hand games tournament as a family, they said, because they already know each other and how they play.

"I can always lean on them for help, and get their support," John Tobac said. "We support each other through everything." 

The next generation will 'catch on'

The family's already thinking about when to get their next generation involved. 

Shawn's son, Charlie Tobac, celebrated his first birthday by watching his family play in the tournament. 

By the time he's 10 years old, Shawn Tobac said he should be ready to take on the games with his family. 

Shawn Tobac, left, and John Tobac, right, watch Charlie, one of the youngest members of their family. "We support each other through everything," John says of his family. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"I just can't wait till that day," Shawn said. "So I can teach him what we know." 

Until then, Shawn said he's going to keep bringing Charlie to hand game tournaments in the hope that he'll "catch on." 

'It's the memories that'll stick with me'

The Tobacs wouldn't disclose their hand games strategy because they didn't want to give their opponents a leg up. 

When asked whether the family would win the grand prize at the tournament, all of them laughed. 

"Oh yeah for sure," Shawn said, while John gave an emphatic "definitely not." 

The family ended up making an early exit from the competition, after losing their first game. But the prize money wasn't their priority. 

"I'm glad I came here, whether I win or lose," John Tobac said. "It's the memories that will stick with me."