Two athletes face off in the Dene wrestling women's junior competition on the opening day of the 2022 NWT Indigenous Summer Games. Sophie Kuijper Dickson/Cabin Radio
Athletes from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska gathered in Yellowknife on Thursday for the opening day of the inaugural Indigenous Summer Games.
Participants of all ages and skill levels tried their hand at northern and Dene games of ring toss, triple jump, Dene wrestling and swing kick.
Some had practised, sometimes weekly, leading up to the event. Some had learned techniques from Elders in their community. Some were trying something they had never done before.
“You’ve got people trying this out for the first time, and then you’ve got someone who’s been super experienced in the games and is competing to beat a record,” event organizer Carson Roche said.
Everybody Cabin Radio spoke with throughout the day said they were there to have fun.
This is the first time Aboriginal Sports Circle NWT has hosted summer games like this. Roche, the organization’s events coordinator, said the gathering was several years in the making.
The games were organized into four categories – junior and adult, male and female.
The junior category was created so youth could continue to compete beyond the Traditional Games Championship, which has an age limit of 12 years old.
“All these kids in the communities, they’re just super excited to meet other kids competing,” Roche said. “They can find their own skill level and they’re here to have fun.”
Connor Bekale and Jordan Arrowmaker made the trip to Yellowknife from Gamètì. They found themselves facing off against each other in the first event of the day – the ring toss.
Bekale, 14, said he had been training for months in preparation for these games, and credited his Elders in Gamètì for having shown him many of the techniques he would be using.
While Bekale said he felt prepared for Thursday’s events, he admitted to being nervous for the two-foot high kick, scheduled for later in the week.
“I’m not as flexible as I used to be,” Bekale explained.
His first game against Arrowmaker lasted for more than 40 minutes. A last-minute change to the ring toss rules meant that if a player scored more than the needed points, their score would drop back down to almost zero instead of disqualifying them.
Arrowmaker and Bekale’s game was neck-and-neck. Each player came close to winning several times, only to overshoot the target score and be bumped back down. Ultimately, Arrowmaker took the match.
Jacqueline Gon, of Behchokǫ̀, volunteered as an official for the games and also hoped to compete in as many events as she could manage. She started playing Dene games when she was in high school, about 10 years ago.
Gon said at that time, it was uncommon for women and girls to participate in what had traditionally been men’s sports.
“Women couldn’t do any of the male sports just because they stayed home and took care of the children, made clothing, cooked,” she explained.
“The males did everything, like hunting, working on their accuracies with things like ring toss, or wrestling would strengthen their muscles.”
When she started participating in the games in high school, she said she felt like she got stares.
“It was just awkward when I first played in the games against friends, it just didn’t feel right. Like: ‘Oh, you’re a woman, you can’t be playing,'” she remembered feeling, though nobody ever said that out loud.
She decided to volunteer as an official because she thinks it’s important for youth to have access to events like this.
“I like promoting sport, especially Indigenous sport,” Gon said. “It’s a great way to revitalize the culture.”
Jodi Olifie is one of seven youth who travelled to Yellowknife from Ulukhaktok for the games. She said she intends to compete in almost all events.
Coming to these sports almost 10 years after Gon’s awkward introduction, Olifie said she cannot relate to Gon’s experience. Instead, she described a small, encouraging games community where “everybody knows everybody.”
After speaking with Cabin Radio, she joined the crowd at the Dene wrestling event, eager to try something she had never attempted before.
‘Part of our survival’
Lorna Storr is an Elder from Aklavik. Like Gon, she volunteered as an official, but this is not her first involvement with northern and Dene games.
She has been coaching athletes for the Arctic Winter Games for more than 20 years. She said she was happy to see Indigenous youth from across the Arctic participating.
“Hopefully, it’ll keep them more focused on their traditional sports events … and help them understand where these games came from. That’s the most important part,” she said.
Storr attended residential school as a child.
“I’m not sure why, but we didn’t practise our traditional games,” she remembered, instead recalling how games like basketball, soccer and hockey were played.
Only in the 1970s did Storr begin to see awareness grow of traditional games.
“It was part of survival that these games were played by our ancestors,” she said.
“We lived on the land. It was hard, it was a harsh environment. So we needed the strength, the stamina, the perseverance. All those events gave us the strength to carry on.”
‘Games connect us’
A team from Juneau, Alaska arrived at the event just after the ring toss had wrapped up. They stepped off the plane at 11am on Thursday and, two hours later, were triple-jumping their way across a Yellowknife school gymnasium.
“It’s a great experience for my team to come to a new place and learn from the local culture,” said Alaska coach Kyle Worl.
“These Indigenous games connect us across different countries. Modern-day political borders create these wedges between our countries. In traditional times, we openly travelled and traded and celebrated together.
“These games represent one of those things that bring our Indigenous people back together, and that’s exciting.”
Roche said about 120 people had registered for the event.
“A lot of people are coming up to me saying they’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he said.
By the end of Thursday, four of 18 events had been completed.
Roche said he anticipates the summer games will grow and plans to continue hosting them every two years.