Waves Of Controversy When Women Join Traditional Men’s Game

Female players in Meander River, Alta., practice. (Hilary Bird)

Female players in Meander River, Alta., practice. (Hilary Bird)

CBC News, May 08, 2016

The drum beat from ancient Dené songs play out of an iPhone. It is modern access to the traditional practice of hand games — a tradition that is evolving as more women are playing what is thought to be a man’s game.

Cassidy Lennie-Ipana, 13,  kneels on the floor and moves her body to the beat of the music. Her teacher sits in front of her and tries to guess which of her hands holds a tiny rock. Lennie-Ipana only learned this ancient game a few months ago.

“It’s fun to play. You could go for hours playing it. It’s just a guessing game so you never know. That’s what I like about it,” said the Inuvik teen.

Traditionally, eight men kneel side-by-side and face the opposing team. A dozen other men sit behind them, drumming and singing. The players arms wave and move in time with the music. But this hypnotic game has mainly been only for men.

In February, Lennie-Ipana flew with her team from Inuvik to Yellowknife to compete in the Northwest Territories Youth Traditional Games Championships.

Hand games controversy

While, on the surface this event may seem innocent, even cheerful, underneath, it’s extremely controversial. So controversial, the organization that put on these games, The N.W.T. Aboriginal Sports Circle, refused to speak to the CBC. But regardless they’ve sparked a dialogue once considered taboo.

This event marked one of the first times in the territory that women were invited to play.

Many Dené feel that women, especially those who have passed puberty, have special powers that can affect the way the game is played and also affect other hand game players.

“The ancient laws that we have, they’re there for our protection and to preserve our way of life and our existence. And when you start messing around with that then you’re in trouble,” said Dené National Chief Bill Erasmus.

“In English you call it a game. It’s a challenge. It’s a competition. It’s a way of people coming together. It’s very spiritual.”

Women and games

In northern Alberta, the territory of the Dené Tha, women in Meander River have been playing hand games for centuries.

Dené Tha elder Modeste Pierre, says it began when a neighbouring first nation, paddling by the community stopped to trade with the Meander Dené. The Meander Dené bet all of their possessions and even the community’s women on a hand game and lost.

Speaking in Slavey, Pierre says the women in the community, terrified of losing their freedom, pleaded with the other group to let them play for a chance to win everything back.

“The women used magic and their bodies moving to the drum beat distracted the other team. They won and saved the community,” said Pierre.

Since then, there have been women’s teams in this region and young women are encouraged to play.

“Sometimes we play against men so it was pretty cool to be a part of our culture and part of our tradition,” said Kathleen Barry.

Many Dené Tha teams play in tournaments in the Northwest Territories, however teams with women are not invited. Many in the North don’t even like talking about it even becoming a possibility.

“I think men just have excuses for everything when it comes to women,” said Barry.

“We’re the same as them. We’re all Dené. We’re all one.”

While the future of women in hand games in the NWT is much more uncertain, the passion and motivation is the same.

“These rules they bring people together they’re not meant to hurt or harm their meant to make us stronger,” said Erasmus.

Back in Inuvik, Lennie-Ipana says she knows about the ancient rules regarding women and the game.

But she says, regardless, she’s gained a new connection to a part of her heritage she never knew. A new connection to her ancestors that passed down these games centuries ago.