The Liard First Nation here in Watson Lake just hosted the Yukon’s 21st Annual Handgames Championship.
I just reread that sentence and was struck by how exotic it must sound being read by you in your sunny Santa Barbara kitchen in southern California.
Rereading that, I had to go to the dictionary to look up exotic:
“1. originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country. 2. strikingly different or colourful.”
To clarify, I am going with No. 2; the word applies in that case and is ridiculous in the first.
Pete’s at camp, so I drove out to Two Mile Lake with a couple from town who are every bit as fascinated as I am with the Kaska culture.
We speculated as to why the site was called “Two Mile:” Two lakes, each a mile long? Two miles in, on a newly-constructed road, from the Alaska Highway? Two miles past a highway stop called Beaver Post?
Once there, we forgot to find out; I leave you to puzzle about it as we continue to do.
The drive in was through that see-through forest typical of this area; no underbrush, just the endless slim trunks of mostly evergreen trees growing out of a variety of coloured mosses. It has a Disneyish look to it: tidy and peaceful, perfect for the adventures of Thumper and Bambi.
The weather was bright, though without constant sun, and the predicted rain held off till we were on our way home.
The venue was wonderful, especially so considering it had all happened this year.
There were some campers and motor homes, but mostly we saw dozens and dozens of tents in scattered campsites tucked in the bush.
The vehicles were confined to a large cleared lot with a bit of a rise in the land to where the action was taking place under an enormous shelter of peeled logs with sky-blue tarps stretched over them.
Pots of stew and chili bubbled on open fires, with buns to accompany them on the long tables in the dining section of the shelter.
Food was free, expectation being one would provide one’s own plates and utensils.
A good idea, cutting down on garbage this way: I would hope to see more of that expectation at public events in the Yukon.
Around the big shelter were various other smaller shelters and tents and even a small trailer selling baseball caps, T-shirts, dream catchers, and the like.
There was a concession stand for those who needed hot dogs, potato chips and soft drinks.
Three substantial cabins had been built on the site, with metal roofs and wood-burning stoves.
There were genderless outhouses placed strategically around the grounds. Platforms with big water tanks had been built at various places, providing water for campers. Lots of covered garbage bins were in evidence, including one down at the lake.
The stick gambling happened on padded mats covering the largest area under the tarps.
When we arrived, there were two games in session, each one thickly surrounded by spectators.
The sound of the many drums, the chanting and shouting, made for an aura of tremendous energy and excitement.
Hundreds of people, mostly aboriginal, packed the shelter: white-haired elders sitting on chairs with their walking sticks held in front of them, blanketed infants snuggled on chests, toddlers boosted onto shoulders or held on hips, lots of little kids running around.
The adolescents were helping with the smaller children, drumming, playing on the teams, or gathered in their little groups down at the beach.
The beach was sandy, created on the shore of the smaller of the two lakes.
There were fish in the lakes, we were told by men who’d been catching grayling and pike to cook on their evening fires.
On the beach, we met and talked to a group of women, taking a break from their cooking duties to have a mug of tea and cool their feet and legs in the water.
Some of the younger women were immersing themselves, fully clothed, with the shouted encouragement of their peers.
Kids were playing in the sand, digging holes and filling them with water carried from the lake in pop cans.
It was a pleasant scene, and made more so by the absence of mosquitoes. This was due to a constant breeze moving through the entire site, just brisk enough to keep the bugs away, but not so brisk as to move hairdos around or blow hats off.
The other lake featured a clearing with no sand, but a small landing for launching boats and a picnic table.
There were more women taking their ease, and fewer kids, but a couple were playing by the water catching minnows or something in a cooking pot.
The stick gambling players moved constantly to the beat of the drums and their body language, speaking the signs of the game, was riveting to watch.
Each player had his own style, his own way of moving and gesturing. In some way, it reminded me of rappers; that same grace and drama moving to a drumbeat.
Everyone moved to the drums, not just the players.
It seems the human body was designed to respond to a drumbeat; it was easy to imagine oneself witnessing such a gathering 100 years ago.
I haven’t a clue what the rules of the game might be, or what is supposed to happen, and I was able to enjoy the experience anyway.
Suffice to say, it is played in teams, six to a side, who kneel across from each other with blankets or jackets covering their knees while they hide markers. There is a sort of referee seated at each end. The sticks are the object — to win them.
Each team has its own drummers, and this contributes hugely to the excitement; when one member is doing something crucial, the drummers (sometimes team players will grab a drum for this part) gather around him or her and drum louder and chant louder. Gestures of protection, encouragement, are made over the player.
Some players are clowns, hamming it up for the crowd as well as their teammates and the other team.
Others are unsmiling and serious.
Still others, mostly the older ones, are sheer poetry in motion, using every finger, each thumb, arms and shoulders, in an intricate seated dance of movement.
There were 37 teams, we heard, coming from all over the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alberta.
The prizes are substantial, with the top prize being $10,000.
I heard mention of airline tickets and laptops as prizes to be won at various draws, and one of my companions spoke of seeing a magnificent vest at the band office that’s been made especially for one of the prizes.
She described it as made mostly of hide, with upper shoulders and back having stunning beadwork on black fabric.
It had lacing down the sides and a fringe across the back.
Such prizes as the vest were the more traditional, obviously, though I should think cash and computers are an acceptable modern replacement!
We stayed for about three hours and could have easily stayed longer, but my friends had to get home to let out their dog.
It was decided we would go again the following day.
It rained hard the next day, but nothing seemed to dampen the spirit of the games; the crowds were as deep and the energy even higher as the winning games were played.
I don’t know if they won overall, but I watched an Alberta team win three games in a row.
They were really fun to see, and the longer I watched them, the more familiar I became with each player’s style and the more I enjoyed it.
We didn’t stay as long on Sunday, but this time we spent the whole time watching the playing.
We all agreed it was a terrific experience for us, and a credit to the aboriginal community that hosted such an enormous event with style and comfort.
While clearly a First Nation event, our minority selves certainly felt welcomed, a fact that never ceases to amaze me considering the local history of residential school abuse and the continued marginalization of native people.
In spite of that grim note, I’ll sign off, grateful for having been able to witness the hand games championship, grateful I am living in a place where such events occur and, most of all, grateful I was outdoors in Southeast Yukon for a total of five and a half hours without once sighting a spruce beetle.
Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.