New Fire

Dene hand games surge in popularity among Northern youth

Lawrence Nayally started playing Dene hand games as a teenager. Over the past decade he’s watched the games surge in popularity among youth — bringing communities together from across the North.
The movement shown here by Nelson Mantla of Rae, N.W.T., is part of the intimidation part of handgames. Mantla has an object in one of his hands and the opposing team has to guess which hand that is. Mantla bobs up and down and moves his hands around in an effort to deceive the opposing team so they can't guess correctly. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

CBC host Lawrence Nayally started playing Dene hand games as a teenager. Over the past decade he's watched the games surge in popularity among youth — bringing communities together from across the North.

Hand games are played throughout North America, with variations from place to place. Nayally says it's a complex game best understood on the mats, facing off against an opposing team.

"What your goal is, you're trying to get as many sticks as your can for your team and the way you do that is you try to let the guesser — the 'shooter' on the other side who you're opposing on the mats — to miss where they shoot," he said.

Growing up, Nayally said you'd typically only see elders playing hand games — an activity that's exclusive to men in the Northwest Territories.

"And then somewhere along the road, around the late 1990s it was noticed that not a lot of people were playing hand games anymore. So the effort was made among spiritual leaders and those that knew the game to try to revitalize this," he said.

In order to revitalize the games the elders looked to the youth, encouraging them to start playing at a younger age.

"They put together a small pot of funding and then they put on the hand games in Tulita and it's just amazing what this game has done," said Nayally.  

In recent years hand games have grown considerably, bringing communities together from across the North for tournaments with increasingly large cash prizes. In March more than 60 teams came out for a tournament in Behchoko, N.W.T., competing for a record jackpot of $100,000.

Some handgames' players, like Sunrise Lockhart of Lutsel K'e, N.W.T., say playing a game is similar to playing a sport - especially if the game goes on for hours and you're constantly moving around, trying to intimidate and throw off the opposing team. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

But Nayally says these games are about so much more than money.

"It's taking young people also off the streets in some cases. You know, where they have nothing much to do and then they just call up each other and say 'let's play some hand games.' And then they come together and you know, it's saving in a sense."


To hear more from Lawrence Nayally about the rise in hand games among youth in the North, click the 'listen' button above.