When Covid-19 arrived, hand games – events where hundreds of people gather and games are necessarily played in close quarters – were one of the first things to disappear in the NWT.
Now that restrictions are loosening, communities are tentatively hosting tournaments again. Organizers say things aren’t quite how they used to be, but the return of hand games is at least a step toward normality.
In Behchokǫ̀, where a $25,000 hand games tournament took place on July 10 and 11, participants had to be members of the community. There were no vaccination or masking requirements.
Ten teams of nine players took part. Clarence Mackenzie, one of the organizers, wished the turnout could have been larger.
“Because of Covid-19 protocols, I couldn’t have much,” Mackenzie said. “I had to turn people away. I didn’t want to do that intentionally, but it had to happen.”
Mackenzie said the Tłı̨chǫ Government is likely to arrange another tournament soon but no details have been finalized.
“The return of hand games is a relief, but I’m hoping more restrictions will be lifted so more people can show up to the community,” he said.
For Mackenzie, the absence of hand games cut off another avenue for Tłı̨chǫ youth to connect with their culture. When the games returned this month, he said, younger participants resumed improving their language skills.
“The young guys can learn how to sing. When they learn how to sing, they’re trying to use our language,” he said.
In the South Slave, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation will host a $50,000 hand games tournament from July 30 to August 2. Participants can come from outside the NWT as long as they are fully vaccinated. KFN announced the tournament in late June, in part to give participants time to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
“We talked and had the discussion on a leadership level that if we were to host big, cultural events, vaccines are one of the biggest things to keep everyone safe,” said Chief April Martel.
If someone from outside the territory wants to enter the KFN reserve, they must be fully vaccinated and follow isolation rules.
“There are some hand games players that are outside the territory,” Martel said.“They did all their self-isolation about two weeks ago, and they have all their vaccine cards from Alberta.”
The chief remembered the drum dance that rounded off hand games tournaments past. More than anything, she’s excited for the return of that moment.
“The last time we had the hand games and the drum dance, it was packed,” said Martel. “There were so many people. Everyone was dancing.
“Hand games are in our Dene culture. The whole dynamic of it is so beautiful. The energy you put into that is so powerful.”
Martel expects a big attendance at the tournament later this month. To accommodate that, the First Nation has booked a second area to spread out the events and arranged outdoor gathering spaces.
If all goes to plan, Martel says, the influx of people won’t just bring back the joy of hand games. It will also provide a boost to the local economy.
Elders “can sell their arts and crafts and food to make money,” Martel said. “With Covid-19, a lot of our local artists have suffered.”
Tulita held a $100,000 hand games tournament this past weekend, timed to coincide with the community’s commemoration of 100 years since Treaty 11 was signed.
Organizers said people from across the territory had travelled to the community to mark that anniversary and participate in the tournament.
“We wanted people to celebrate with us,” Chief Frank Andrew said. “Even though it is still Covid times, we thought, well, we’ll just give it a try. We had a few people come about, so that was good.”
Masks and Covid-19 vaccinations were not required for the Tulita hand games tournament, but some restrictions were still in place.
“We couldn’t serve food. We had to be careful of everything,” Andrew said. “So it’s not the same as we used to have fun before.”