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'Our Culture Is Not static’

'Our Culture Is Not static’

A traditional First Nations ‘men’s game’ is being played by women in the North.
By Genesee Keevil
Jan 03
From the January 2017 Issue

Angela Code keeps a .22 shell casing in her pocket. When the drumming starts, she pulls out the empty copper casing and hides it in her fist. Beside her—kneeling—women begin to bounce and hoot. Code starts bouncing too, head down, fists flying. 

It is day one of Canada’s first all-female handgames tournament, and inside Whitehorse’s Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, it’s deafening. There is a baby in noise-cancelling earmuffs, male drummers in moosehide vests, and women —more than 100 women on the floor swaying and whooping, their arms twirling wildly. 

“I think it’s wrong,” says Benjamin Doctors. “Women don’t play—it’s always been that way.” The Tulita drummer is taking a breather outside the cultural centre. “It’s funny for me to see women play,” he says. “Seeing them bouncing and screaming around—I’ve never seen that before. It’s not good for me.” 

A girl in a hoodie with “Kaska” scrawled across her cheeks passes Doctors in the hall, followed by Code and another woman, both wearing their Sharp Hooks team T-shirts. “We used to play for guns, bullets, dog teams, wives and daughters,” says Doctors. “It’s a man’s game.”

Code pocketed the .22 shell casing after beating her brother target shooting. But he has the advantage when it comes to handgames. “We weren’t allowed to play,” says Code. “I never heard a reason, it’s just the way it was.” Code is tall and slender, with a red bandana wrapped around her long black hair. The Sharp Hooks logo on her T-shirt features caribou antlers, because caribou are the only species of deer in which the females sport racks, like the males. They keep their antlers even after the males shed theirs, says Code, to poke bull caribou away from their food. 

Handgames are an elimination-style guessing game. Players hide objects in one of their fists and the other team tries to guess. Every player caught full-fisted is out, while empty palms buy players a stick, and a spot in the next round. The goal is to get all the other team’s players out before they earn 12 sticks.

Code started playing several years back, first with friends, then in mixed tournaments in Yukon. “People are uncomfortable because it’s not traditional,” she says. “They perceive authentic Indians as pre-colonization. I want to combat that perception. If we focus only on what it is to be a traditional Indian, it’s hard to be a modern Indian.”

In the conference hall, a young player hides her hands under a fuzzy Hello Kitty blanket. In one palm, she secretly places her lucky token, or dodzi, a worn piece of glass, stone, a button, a bit of bone – a bullet shell. Her five teammates follow suit. The drumming takes off, fists emerge from under blankets, and the women begin to bob and hoot, arms dancing. 

Across from them, six women watch. One is the caller. She decides which fist is hiding each dodzi then signals, shooting a thumb one way and two fingers another, or splaying her thumbs opposite directions. Four left, two right. Half left, half right. All left. For every fist that comes up empty, the other team takes a stick, laughing and fluttering bare palms like victorious vaudeville dancers.

It is as much a mental game as it is physical, says Code’s teammate Cherish Clarke. “Your endorphins are pumping and you’re lost in the moment with the drums.” The Sharp Hooks just finished a game that lasted more than an hour, then lost another in a matter of minutes. “Our opponents were practiced and could read our hands,” says Clarke. “And we were exhausted. A lot depends on mindframe.”

“A good caller looks right into your soul,” says Code. “I know elders who are so sweet and friendly, then you get in a game with them and they are right in your face. If they shake your confidence, you give away signals. It’s like poker.” 

Professional players can make big money. In the Northwest Territories—where women still aren’t allowed to participate—tournament pots are as high as $80,000. “So excluding women is an interesting dynamic,” says Code.

The money earned during the all-women handgames, over Mother’s Day weekend, is going to initiatives supporting Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. “This is about honouring those women,” says Code. “And it’s a beautiful thing because men helped make it happen.”

By lunchtime the floor is full of men, bouncing on their knees, waving fists in the air and howling. “They just can’t not invade our game,” says a woman in beaded buckskin, holding a toddler. “It’s hard for them because they always play, so we compromised and decided to let them play during breaks.”

Isaiah Gilson, a young man wearing a hammered copper shield around his neck, claims the ban on women playing is legitimate. “It’s not a sexist thing. They’re more powerful because women have the gift of life.” When women play, men don’t stand a chance, he adds with a grin.

Code often plays with the men, for practice. She even went to the Yukon Archives to pick up tricks from 1930s stick gambling footage. “There is a lot of talk about cultural revitalization,” she says. “We’re fighting to get back what was lost, but it’s important to remember our culture is not static.”

By the end of the weekend, the male drummers are losing their voices. They sit packed around the women—men in black Boss toques, young boys just learning, and elders in beaded vests—supporting every game. Doctors is there too, beating his drum hard, singing loud and hoarse, until the last stick is played.