Members of the Fort Liard hand games team celebrate placing fifth in Délįnę in February. Photo: Ryan Dickie
A hand games tournament is being held this weekend in BC, and teams from across the Northwest Territories have signed up to compete in Fort Nelson.
Two of those teams are from Fort Liard.
Twenty years ago, seeing two teams from the Dehcho community at a major tournament wouldn’t have seemed possible. There were fewer and fewer participants each year in hand games, and fewer still willing to attend big events.
But a contingent of young players passionate about keeping Dene culture and traditions alive has been helping hand games regain momentum in Fort Liard.
Angus James Capot-Blanc is one of them. He helps run the Fort Liard Hand Games Society, which was formally incorporated in May 2023.
“We just got our certificate in the mail a couple of days ago,” said Capot-Blanc. “It was a big accomplishment for us. Right now, we’re trying to pick up the culture strong again in Fort Liard. With the Hand Games Society, we’re trying to provide that safe haven for the culture, for drumming and hand games.”
Capot-Blanc, who is 22, has been playing hand games since he was 13 years old, and started playing competitively in tournaments at 15.
“At first I was nervous. I was scared I was going to do something wrong, you know? Just like how a teenager thinks: ‘I’m going to mess up and ruin this for the whole team.’ And then I realized it was nothing but pure joy. It’s the most healing and most exciting sport.”
He remembers noticing, back when he was a spectator, that when teams lost, they didn’t yell or get upset. There was an energy, a collective feeling, around hand games that was magnetic.
“The feeling when you’re playing hand games or drumming is unexplainable. You have to see it with your eyes, feel the vibration of the drums, hear the people on the mats chanting… it’s mesmerizing. Something you never forget. Something powerful,” he said.
“Every time I sit on the mat, I feel like a winner already. It’s the best feeling.”
Elders are thrilled
That was a feeling Capot-Blanc wanted to share with the next generation. He began having discussions with others passionate about keeping hand games alive last fall.
“When I started, it was only six of us young guys showing up to practices. It was mostly all older people. But now, when we have practices, we’ll have more than 14 kids coming by. It makes me jump in joy to see them picking up the culture.”
Capot-Blanc says he has been approached by Elders who share his feeling of pride to see so many young people becoming involved. He gets it.
“I want to see these young guys growing, playing together when I’m 50, 60 years old too.”
According to Capot-Blanc, Fort Liard youth have Robert Lowe to thank for this development.
“He was the one who got all of us younger guys into hand games,” he said.
“I grew up playing hand games as a kid, right?” said Lowe. “I kept playing on and off, but I never really thought about teaching it until 2015, when Fort Liard started to get back into hand games.”
He says he has taught youth locally as well as in Fort Nelson and Prophet River, BC.
Lowe says when he first started working with young people, many were hesitant, but quickly grew to love the game.
“I tell them the best way to learn is by playing. And as soon as they get into it, you can see them light up,” he said.
“I taught a couple times at the school this year and we had almost 90-percent participation. And for me, I feel like I’ve accomplished my mission if they enjoy it and have fun and don’t take it really serious.”
Lowe remembers a time when no one in the Acho Dene Koe First Nation seemed to be drumming.
“All of a sudden, I realized there were no drum dances any more, there was no hand games practices.”
Lowe is too modest to acknowledge that he might have helped turn things around, but he does say he appreciates the feedback he and others have received from the rest of the community.
“When I’ve seen Elders around town, they always mention how great it is to see hand games once again in Liard. And it’s great seeing my nephew, who’s seven, learn to play.”
Ryan Dickie is a photographer and videographer who lives in Fort Nelson but has close ties to the community in Fort Liard. He has been documenting their journey through a new web series called Handgame Trails.
In February, he travelled with the team to Délįnę and captured the moment they came in fifth at a $150,000 tournament. For the second episode, he planned to cover their experiences this weekend in Fort Nelson – but from a behind-the-scenes perspective, as he is an organizer of the event.
Dickie said the series is part of a project he calls the Dene Collective.
“One time, I was interviewing a Dane-zaa Elder. There was a time when Elders didn’t like to be recorded. But I remember he looked at me and pointed at my camera and said, one day, we’re going to need more of you, because this is the way the next generation learns.”
That moment was the inspiration to create a collection of images and videos that capture Dene culture.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in sharing Dene stories through film,” said Dickie, “and especially around hand games. I’m actually working on a project with CBC right now, and some of the producers were talking about putting something together to broadcast nationally.
“So eventually, I’m sure that’s going to happen, but I’m sure it’ll be a bigger production. This is basically just me, a camera, a few players I’m close to and our adventures.”
Drum is good for the soul
Dickie says Fort Nelson went through a parallel experience to the turnaround Capot-Blanc and Lowe described in Fort Liard.
“Our community here in Fort Nelson nearly lost this tradition. We had no drummers at one point, until my brother kind-of brought it back in 2018. He was part of that group in Fort Liard, with young AJ and Robert back in 2015.
“They had a really strong connection to their culture and he wanted to bring that back to the youth in our community.”
Fort Nelson has been hosting annual tournaments ever since, welcoming teams from across BC, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
“It’s just continuing to grow,” said Dickie. “I fell it love with it as well. I feel like I was missing something for a long time in my life, and hand games was definitely the thing that filled that void.”
Dickie describes hand games as a practice that’s not about winning and prize money, but a spiritual experience, which he calls good medicine.
“You can have a lot going on in your life, but once you’re on the mat and you’re drumming for the team in front of you, it’s like all that stuff goes away and you’re just kind-of living in the moment,” he said.
“When you have several hundred people at an event all keyed into one thing, it’s hard not to be overcome with that energy and that emotion.”
Dickie’s father was a residential school survivor who passed on memories of not being allowed to hold a drum, let alone bring one to school. Back at home, men left without their children tried to keep the tradition going.
“There were men living out in the communities, in the territories, that would go out on the land, kind-of in secrecy, to play hand games. It was forbidden. It was against the law,” Dickie said. “So they were going out to do this to keep it alive.”
The men would play for matches, flour and bullet shells, just to feel connected to one another and to a way of life that felt like it was slipping away.
“There’s so much history around it,” he continued. “It was nearly stripped away from us, and now that it’s come back stronger than ever, it feels like every event, it’s just amplified much more.”
So what’s next, now that the Fort Liard Hand Games Society has been formally incorporated, placed competitively in a major tournament, and featured in a web series?
“We’re aiming for the September long weekend to have a $50,000 tournament here in Fort Liard, all funded by the Hand Games Society,” said Capot-Blanc.
Over the next few weeks and months, the society’s members hope to keep teaching and sharing the joy of hand games, and create drummers for future generations.
“The drum is a powerful healing tool in our culture in the North,” said Capot-Blanc.
“People are attracted to it, they’re drawn to it, because they know it’s good for their soul and they need healing from it.”