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'Gets my heart going': Yellowknives Dene host enormous handgames tournament

Handgames players from across the North are gathered in Dettah, N.W.T., this week for the largest tournament since the start of the pandemic. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is hosting hundreds of people, many who are reuniting for the first time in years.

Seeing old friends, shaking hands and drum dancing under the midnight sun

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation handgames team plays on Wednesday afternoon. The First Nation is hosting one of the N.W.T.'s largest handgames gatherings in years. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

In the largest handgames gathering in years, 36 teams have traveled from across the N.W.T., Yukon and British Columbia to compete in the $100,000 Yellowknives Dene First Nation handgames tournament. 

Jessica Sangris, language and culture coordinator for YKDFN, said she was proud to see her community pull off the large-scale event.

"We have not been able to gather like this since the pandemic started. To me right now, seeing all of the people gather, all the smiling faces, seeing people you haven't seen for years — that's the funnest part," she said.

Coordinator Jessica Sangris said hosting handgames means a lot to the community of Dettah. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Every night until Friday, Dettah is hosting handgames players, holding a carnival for kids and putting on cultural events in the community, ending every evening with a drum dance under the midnight sun. 

Sangris said she's seeing Elders she hasn't seen for a long time, and that it's the community's first year putting on a tournament of this size. 

Hundreds of spectators came to the community, filling the bleachers.

Hundreds of spectators and handgames players came to Dettah to watch 38 teams compete. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Yellowknives Dene drummers at the opening ceremony for men's handgames tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Teams kicking off day one of Yellowknives Dene First Nation handgames tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

The handgames have brought many people into the community, which usually has a population of a few hundred people.

"To see my community be able to come together and pull off a massive event like this — it's awesome," Sangris said.

The tournament was originally scheduled for last summer but was cancelled because of COVID-19 outbreaks in the territory. 

During the day, there are two games running at once, as well as cultural and language activities, translation services, a sewing area and programming with the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning.

Sangris thanked every person who had a hand in putting the event together. 

"The most rewarding part is watching the hand games and hearing the drumming. It gets my heart going and I love it. Seeing my community all come together and work like this is really magical to me," said Sangris. 

Leonard Kenny came from Délı̨nę to compete, and was thankful that YKDFN reorganized the event so his team could take part despite days of plane delays. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Wilfred Crapeau shakes hands after one of the first games in a three-day tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Leonard Kenny said the Délı̨nę teams tried to make it to Yellowknife for several days but had flight troubles — they flew in the morning of handgames and YKDFN reorganized the games to make sure the three teams that Délı̨nę sponsored could compete.

"We're here now and we're happy," he said. 

Kenny said this handgames is a "long-time coming" after years of staying apart and observing travel bans. 

"It's been really good to see people come together like this," he said. 

"The weather is just beautiful and I'm happy to see old friends, shake their hands and say hello," he said. 

Spectators look on as the men compete in the $100,000 handgames tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Former Gameti Chief John Bekale (right) drums during handgames in Dettah. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Spectators look on in day one of YKDFN handgames tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Marie Speakman in the stands for YKDFN handgames. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Kenny said handgames and drum dances have always been a part of life in the community. 

He remembers a time when Tłı̨chǫ communities traveled to Délı̨nę in 1968 by dog team and played hand games for five days straight.

"You see your culture and your language alive. It's so good to see it ongoing now. So many young people are right into it so I'm really happy for that," he said. 

Kenny said having the handgames in Dettah is nice because it's only a 20 minute drive from Yellowknife, has access to accommodations and is well organized. 

"It's all about having fun. It's not so much about winning for me. Meeting new people, having drum dances. The dances are going to be awesome."

Elder Dolphus Baton, centre, looks on during the first day of handgames. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation handgames team. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Yellowknives Dene team plays handgames on Wednesday afternoon. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Tłı̨chǫ handgames players at the YKDFN handgames tournament. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Keegan Boucher from Łutselkʼe, N.W.T., said his community is excited to have two teams that will drum for one another, including a team that's all Marlowes. 

Boucher said the tournament means getting to see relatives in Dettah and Yellowknife. 

Boucher said his late-grandfather George Marlowe taught him how to play.

"He really wanted us to keep it going so it wouldn't die out in Łutselkʼe. [He] helped keep it going, bringing drums back in the community, got all the youth to play. Handgames is really important. It's fun, lots of fun.

"It's a good way to take off the stress." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avery Zingel

Reporter

Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at avery.zingel@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.

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