“Down south, they say people follow the pow wow trail. In the NWT, they follow the hand games trail,” said Peter Daniels, head organizer of the Salt River First Nation’s traditional men’s hand games tournament.

The three-day tournament, held annually in conjunction with Treaty Land Entitlement Days events, drew teams from across the NWT and Northern Alberta to Fort Smith – hoping to win $75,000 in prizes.

Seventeen eight-person teams signed up this year and, while organizers were expecting a larger turnout, they were thrilled by the number of teens participating.

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Hand games player Daylen Powder, an 18-year-old Paul W Kaeser High School student, and his friend Corbin Sinclair are part of a drumming and hand games school club that meets daily. They manage to play hand games even if only two people show up, and encourage other students to “listen for the drumming and come out.”

They have been playing since they were children, and that practice paid off when they were asked to play on a local team this year.

“Playing hand games for me helps support my culture,” said Sinclair, who – at 16 – is just old enough to play in the tournament.

Daniels and the students agreed the tournament was a successful weekend. For Daniels, who has acted as head official of Dene Games in three Arctic Winter Games, this tournament is calm by comparison. Once the tournament gets going, he said, “it looks after itself” – with players stepping in as needed to drum or officiate.

On Sunday afternoon, the Straight Outa Behchoko team went home with a grand prize of $40,000 after beating team Sahtu in a 39-minute final.

Sahtu pocketed $20,000, while the Roman Lamouelle team (Behchoko) in third received $10,000. Teams in fourth through eighth place each won $1,000.