An ancient Dene practice, once hidden and withering, is experiencing an amazing revival in communities throughout the North. Hand games were an important pastime and tradition anywhere Dene people lived, especially in communities that caribou migrated through, notes Mike Mercredi, an Experiential Learning Initiative coordinator and Dene Hand Games and Drumming Teacher.
Based on a simple concept of hiding and guessing of objects using hand signals and gestures to both find the object and hide the object, the games were once played for enjoyment and pride.
There were often stakes involved, for furs, dogs, toboggans, or other trade goods and sometimes were even used as a way to settle conflicts.
Mercredi says this tradition was nearly lost before Dene community members and leaders began re-introducing hand games to young people more than 20 years ago.
“It was hidden among the people,” he said, noting that drumming, singing and other traditional practices had largely been forbidden by the Church.
When drumming and dancing became accepted, he said only a few select people still played in Fort Chipewyan, but they passed the knowledge and the love for hand games on to others.
He first witnessed hand games at the young age of 13. He didn’t play. He just watched in amazement.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “But it was the drumming that got me into it.”
It wouldn’t be until later in his life that Mercredi would have the chance to play regularly and experience how hand games were played in other Dene communities in the North.
“I saw different ways of playing everywhere, but when you put the moves all together – it was really a dance,” he said. “When you go to the tournaments, you will see how focused and how deep the games are and how ingrained in the communities and culture they are.”
Today, the hand games are once again celebrated in Dene-Athabaskan communities throughout the North.
Often having large prizes at stake, and now featured as a traditional sport in the Arctic Winter Games, the vibrant excitement of traditional hand games is brought to life by drummers beating caribou hide drums and chanters building the tension as players face off, taking turns hiding small tokens.
For Dene youth, hand games have become the most popular traditional event, and Mercredi says it is having a positive influence on young people.
“The games teach you honesty,” he said. “In the games, you can do little moves and tricks, and you get to read body language. The kids who learn to play from a young age – you can’t lie to them. They will look at you and know.”
Like he was taught by others, Mercredi now shares what he knows with young people throughout the region, offering teaching sessions in several communities.
“I’m a conduit of knowledge – passing on what was taught to me,” he said. “I’ve seen the confidence it creates in young people. Whether playing against adults and elders, they are no longer intimidated by people. There’s lots of respect.”
Heritage photo: Gwichya Gwich’in men and boys playing Dene Handgame, Tsiigehtchic (Tsiigehtshik, formerly Arctic Red River), Northwest Territories, ca. 1930. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (LAC).