Twenty years ago, traditional Dene hand games seemed to be on the verge of dying. But a youth-led revival has given them new life, and they are once again a thriving cultural mainstay.
Dene hand games have been played in our communities for thousands of years. Opposing teams face off on their knees and, over the beat of a drum, take turns hiding small tokens in their hands, while the “shooter” of the other team tries to guess where the tokens are hidden. Sounds simple, but the tricks and techniques that players use are incredibly nuanced and varied. It’s a thrilling spectator sport, as fun to watch as it is to play.
Teams from across the North gather regularly for competitions and tournaments, with big prizes to be won. These events are very powerful; you can feel it in the room as the chant and the tension builds and builds and people young and old are bopping their heads to the drums. It’s a beat you groove on, an entire vibe, and the energy feeds the players. Every player has their own specific style that shines through in their performance in the game.
The hand games are a form of both entertainment and commerce for the Dene people. They serve as a way to redistribute resources and wealth and are often perceived by outsiders as gambling, but it’s more than that. In the past, these games were used in negotiation, trade, and even as a mediation tool to resolve conflicts.
Only a short time ago, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Dene people were afraid that the culture of the hand games and the drum dance was dying. But youth truly are the future. It was young people who implored their Elders to teach them: their aunties, their uncles, their grandparents.
The young people craved the game and to play the drum, and asked for more hand games programming in schools and youth centres. We can credit these young people with revitalizing a Dene cultural practice that was at risk of being lost: another casualty of the shame cast on our communities and our culture.
Many adults at that time were survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential School System in the North. As children, they had been shamed and punished for practising their culture and speaking their languages, an assimilation tactic meant to “kill the Indian, save the child.” When these children became parents themselves, many found it very difficult to share cultural knowledge or language with the next generation, hoping to protect them from the same cruelty that they had experienced themselves.
It was within this context that the aunties, uncles, parents, and grandparents were called to spring back into action and resurface their knowledge, despite their difficult associations with those teachings. For many, these were things they had put to rest and mourned, thinking they no longer had a useful place in the world. Owing to their experience with non-Indigenous society, some of the Elders felt that teaching cultural practices to their kids or grandkids might actually bring them harm.
Dene people say that children are gifts and must be treated as such, because they are teachers. Children should not be seen as burdens; they have so much to show us. They can bring back entire quadrants of our culture, just by being beautiful children.
“Grandpa, I want to drum. Grandpa, teach me how to do this.” They compel us to heal decades, even generations of trauma, and to return to our traditions, through their love.
Today, hand game and drum culture flourishes across the North and continues to bring communities together in friendly competition and celebration as a thriving cultural mainstay. In the old days, you might play for things like bullets, bags of flour, tobacco, even dogs for your dogsledding teams. Now, the games have evolved and represent a key tourist attraction in the North. Organized tournaments with grand prizes of as much as $50,000 or $100,000 attract teams and spectators from across the North. The hand games are now a healthy, thriving micro-economy, and many Elders in many regions are satisfied that Dene drum culture is no longer at risk of being lost.
With the renewal of hand games comes a return to traditional songs as well. In Denendeh these days, you see young drummers standing alongside grandfathers and great-grandfathers, singing traditional songs at public events or community drum dances. They came for the games, but learning our songs is part of the package. In a time when there has been so much ruin, this is a really beautiful thing, that we have healed enough to cultivate spaces where we have the ability to be who we are.. It’s so beautiful when you’re just doing Dene things with Dene people.
Eugene Boulanger is Shúhtagot’ı̨nę from Tulít’a in the Sahtu Region of Denendeh. He is a visual designer, DJ, and producer known as Young Dene and a founding member of the northern Indigenous leadership collective Dene Nahjo. He works in public health in British Columbia and currently lives within the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Sel̓íl̓witulh peoples, in the city of Vancouver.
Jeremy Blahay is a photographer and videographer from Lyon, France whose documentary approach addresses themes of post-colonialism, ecology and oral histories. jeremyblahay.com