Hand Games: Revive and Thrive


by Skyler Isaac

We can’t really discuss the Selkirk First Nation without first explaining a bit about their original dwelling, an area known as Fort Selkirk.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Fort Selkirk, located on the Yukon River, has been in use for over eight thousand years. But it’s better known as a former Hudson Bay trading post, established by Robert Campbell in 1848. This post would be forcefully shut down in 1852 after being raided and looted by Chilkat Tlingit First Nation warriors who resented the fact that the trading post would interfere with their own trade activities with the interior Athabaskan First Nations.

Since Fort Selkirk is only accessible either by plane or by river, the construction of the Klondike Highway signaled an end to riverboat traffic to the community. After that, the population of the small settlement began to dwindle, with businesses shutting down and some people moving to Minto Landing in order to work on the highway. Eventually there remained no more than two permanent residents.

More important than all of this, however, is the role that the Selkirk First Nation played in the revitalization of one of the First Nation people’s favorite sporting events: hand games. The rules to hand games are simple, yet complex all the same. Two teams, each consisting of an equal number of participants, kneel on the ground and face one another. On either side, groups of drummers and singers will join in, performing traditional gambling songs.

Players will hide their hands beneath a blanket or behind their back, shuffling the game’s token from fist to fist. The leader of the opposing will let out a resounding clap of his hands, at which point the drumming stops and the members of the other team reveal their hands.

The captain then uses a hand signal to guess which hand the token is in for all members of the team. If the guess is correct, then a player is eliminated. If the guess is wrong, the captain hands over a counting stick to the team.

Once all players have been eliminated, the other team will take their turn hiding the token. This continues until one team wins all of the counting sticks.

Simple, yet complex.

I get flown around the North to teach people hand games, And I still have trouble explaining it, because you just have to be there, where the games are being played. You have to watch. There’s a lot going on. That’s why I love it. It’s so intricate, so unlike anything else.
– Wilfred Johnston

This year, 2018, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the annual hand games championships, which was hosted by the Selkirk First Nation at Minto Landing. This is the very same location where the first annual hand games championships were held. With the game’s lasting presence and growing participation numbers, it would seem like the game’s popularity is ever flourishing.

“I haven’t missed a hand games tournament…in about twenty years,” says Wilfred Johnston, “Hand games energy is the best energy to be around. It’s like medicine. It’s about getting together, having fun and practice being Indigenous.
“Hand games [are] sacred to the Indigenous people. It’s a path to get away from a life we’re not so used to, that being colonized life. [This championship] let’s us get away from that is just so meaningful to so many of us. We get a chance to go out on the land, to our ancestors, and unite again.”

The traditional hand games played by First Nations people from all around the Yukon have been in existence for so long that they predate recorded history. As such, the inception of the games is a debated topic. Some First Nations believe that the game and its rules were taught to their ancestors by the animals. Still others believe that the game was given to them by the Creator, a gift whose purpose is to serve as an alternative to going to war and shedding one another’s blood. Historical documentation tells us that the games were once played in order to acquire everyday necessities such as land, horses, female companionship and cattle.

These days, however, the circumstances are different than they once were. Whether it’s played during a traditional gathering or a big tournament, in modern times the game is simply played for fun, and to demonstrate athletic skill and ability. They certainly play a large role in Yukon First Nations society.

In times of colonization, when the First Nations people of Canada were being widely oppressed by the colonial government, the games were flat out prohibited. Anyone caught participating in the games were subject to harsh punishment. From that point on, the game was played in secret. It was the bravery of the First Nations people that has allowed the hand games to survive, meaning that both young and old alike can come together in the modern age to compete against one another in this age-old sport.

One aspect that has assisted the popularity growth of the games in the Yukon is the fact that women are now able to take part in the fun. Traditionalists argue against the inclusion of women because they were traditionally barred from the games because it was feared that their menstruation or moon cycle would distract the men and cause them to lose.

While the games have been played primarily by men, and some communities still don’t allow women to play at all, Yukon is leading when it comes to incorporating both genders in their gameplay. In May of 2016, the Yukon Hand Games Society held its first ever hand games tournament consisting entirely of female participants.

The annual hand game championships and the popularity of the games even outside of tournaments is a great way of preserving a prominent and beloved aspect of First Nations culture.

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