Aboriginal hand games all about mind trickery
- Aboriginal hand games all about mind trickery
By Elise Stolte, Edmonton Journal
June 5, 2010 6:57 AM
Players reveal their hands to show who was holding the small object after the other team guesses. Members of the Driftpile First Nation demonstrate a hand game on June 4, 2010, in preparation for regional hand games that are being held June 5 on Driftpile First Nation.
Photograph by: Ryan Jackson, edmontonjournal.com
DRIFTPILE - An ancient game of intimidation, bluff and chance that almost died out in aboriginal communities across Western Canada is popular again.
Hand games, a community game often played with drums, sticks and spent bullets, nearly died out during the area of residential schools when people were discouraged from following traditions.
In many communities, only a few elders still remembered the rules.
But with a new focus on culture and pride, the chants and drums are starting to ring through school hallways and community leagues again. The best players can compete for up to $20,000 in prize money on tournament circuits around Alberta.
Player Ross Giroux grins.
"Today, (my father) is probably looking down at me smiling," said Giroux, the grey-haired tournament co-ordinator who played his father's drum to help northern Alberta school kids practise Friday afternoon. The second annual regional school championship is today in Driftpile.
Giroux's father played. He tried for years to teach the game to children, but found little interest. He died five years ago.
To watch the kids now laugh and have fun doing what their ancestors loved, "it's what my father envisioned, what he wanted to do before he passed on. It makes me proud," Giroux said.
On the surface, hand games are simple. Two teams face off, hide small objects in their left or right hand and the others try to guess which hand the object is in. Add in constant drumming, chanting, shouting and shaking by players to try to intimidate and confuse their opponents.
In the end, it's a mind game.
"It's a lot of reading people," said school principal Daisy McGee. "It's almost like you're playing Texas hold'em."
"It does tend to get noisy," said Rita Bellerose, a coach for a Driftpile team of eight-and nine-year-olds. She trains them to stare at the other team until one inadvertently glances down to the hand hiding the object.
The hardest part is guessing, said eight-year-old Claydon House, "and when you're playing three games straight and your legs just hurt."
The game used to be played whenever communities got together, such as after drying fish beside a lake or a major hunt, Giroux said. They played for a horse, a wagon or a gun. The best games could last for days. The school kids have a half-hour time limit.
It was likely taught to the Cree by another First Nation, Giroux said, since the Dene, Blackfoot and Inuit have similar games.
"Jayjay Isadore, the elder overseeing the kickoff round dance for today's tournament, said his grandmother use to play the game. "No one knows how it started. No one has seen enough in our time."
Audrey Giles studied the growth of hand games and the participation of women among the Dene, mainly in the Northwest Territories, during her PhD at the University of Alberta.
The games were suppressed during the era of residential schools since church leaders didn't approve of the drum, a sacred object in aboriginal cultures, and a key part of the games.
But the games grew again as the church's influence waned. They were added to western sports at the Arctic Winter Games in 1990, with a junior men's category added in 2002 and a junior women's category in 2004.
"It's highly entertaining," Giles said. "It's very showy, very flashy. It's fast moving with a lot of strategy.
"I can't keep up. A lot of it is the showmanship of it all."
Giles studied the participation of women because of the religious context. In many communities, women are asked to avoid some sacred gatherings during their menstrual cycle, either because they are considered polluted or because they are believed to have strong powers at that time.
The conflict over women's participation in hand games persists because, while some communities see hand games much like a sport, others believe strong competitors could use medicine or spiritual power to influence an opponent's guess. The drum is also more than an instrument. Some call it "the heartbeat of mother earth," said Giles. "It's a connection to the sacred aspect of life. It's like asking why the cross is important to Catholics."
At least one hand games organization has opposed the involvement of women, but in Driftpile it's not an issue, said Bellerose, a coach with three girls and one boy on her team. The school teams are open to anyone, including non-aboriginal students.
The big money in Alberta is at the Tsuu T'ina and Siksika tournaments in southern Alberta, financed by the casinos, said Dorothy Simon, who is organizing the Samson Cree tournament in Hobbema for the Aug. 5 to 8 powwow.
It's the fourth time they have held a tournament and they already have $10,000 lined up for prizes.
More than 100 players entered the Samson Cree tournament last year, about half of them women. "It's becoming more popular in the last five years," she said. "It's a game easy enough for anyone to get into."
Bellerose is planning to play at several tournaments around northwestern Alberta this summer, and an adult league started last year in Driftpile.
Just like in the old days, it's bringing people back together, she said. "The desire is there, the desire to do something, to be part of the community."
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
Players hold out their hands to show who was hiding the small object after the other team guesses who was holding it. Members of the Driftpile First Nation demonstrate a hand game on June 4, 2010, in preparation for regional hand games that are being held June 5 on Driftpile First Nation.
Photograph by: Ryan Jackson, edmontonjournal.com
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