Music is an important part of life in the north, and Yellowknife is a remarkably musical town. It seems that everybody has a day job and an after-hours talent. It strikes me that for a higher than normal percentage of the population, that talent is playing an instrument and/or singing. After work, your Clark Kent-ish co-worker might don his Superman suit and rock out on his guitar, or the unassuming Diana Prince-like woman in the next cubicle might spin into WonderWoman, get on a stage and belt her lungs out. At various venues around town, you can take in anything from an informal open mic night to a full-blown choir, or performances of classical, soul, blues, folk, and probably anything in between. That’s just the local talent. All kinds of musicians visit Yellowknife and give us a good show. For example, on February 22nd we were treated to a visit by Joe Sealy and Jackie Richardsom performing Africville Stories, which was brilliant. For those who may not feel that they have any talent, never fear, there’s also karaoke in this town.
Of course, what would life in the north be without the music of its longest inhabitants? This month, the museum hosted Aboriginal Peoples Collaborative Exchange, a musical collaboration among Leela Gilday, the award-winning Dene singer/songwriter, the Denendeh Drummers, and Jackson 2Bears, a Mohawk multimedia artist who added a twist of the visual plus electronic music. I’ve seen the Denendeh drummers perform before, but the combination of drumming with electronic music, images beamed onto the backdrop, plus the consistent chant of male voices accented by the lone female voice, was a captivating new sound.
They sang a variety of songs, including a Dene love song. One of the drummers explained that Dene love songs are not only about love between a man and a woman, but also about love of the land. The word “Dene” means “the people” and “Denendeh” means “land of the people”. When you live in a big, sprawling, noisy city with concrete under your feet and high-rises blocking your view of even the sky, you can sometimes forget that the land and nature exist. But here, even if you live in the city, you can be in the wilderness literally in minutes. In the north, the settlements are small and sparse, the views of the surrounding land are unencumbered for miles and there is a sense of an endless, big, blue sky. You are keenly aware of the peacefulness, vastness and beauty of the land, and you simply can’t help yourself for loving it. If you hunt or trap, that land also provides you with food, clothing, shelter and income, so you value it even more.
The museum’s official name is the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, and it’s a great place to visit, for anyone of any age. Every time I go there, I see kids gleefully running in and out of the replicas of a log cabin, winter tent and teepee. For the past few weeks, there have been extra activities, as part of the Amazing Family Sundays programme. You could have learned how to identify wildlife by interpreting tracks in the snow, or how to build an igloo, if you didn’t mind braving the cold outdoors.
For the warm-blooded such as myself, learning how to play Dene hand games was more appealing. The first time that I watched this game being played was during National Aboriginal Day celebrations. Between observation and the few words of explanation that someone kindly provided, I got the gist of it. I’ve watched it a few times since, but I couldn’t fully grasp what was happening during the guessing part of it. But even if you don’t know exactly what’s going on, it’s one of those games that is as much fun to watch as it is to play.
For the lesson, there were 2 teams of 6 players each, and it was explained that traditionally, the game is played by men only, but in some places farther north and in the Yukon, women are allowed to play. However, our very personable instructor – who also happened to be one of the Denendeh drummers – graciously made a local exception, for the sake of learning. The game is played on the ground, with the teams kneeling on a blanket, mat or a tarp, facing each other. There’s a referee on either end, to arbitrate disputes and to ensure no cheating. Essentially, each member of one team hides a token in one hand. Tokens can be stones, coins, whatever is handy. The captain (or designated guesser) of the opposing team has to guess in which hand each of them has it. For every wrong guess, the captain has to give a counting stick to the hiding team. At the start, all of the sticks are in the “neutral” middle ground and they are placed beside each team as they are won. When all of the neutral ones are gone, the teams can take sticks away from their opponents. The objective of the game is to win all of the sticks. That’s it in a nutshell, but it’s not as simple as that. In fact, it is a game of strategy, tension, deception, posturing, psyching out of opponents, and pure, unadulterated, rollicking good fun. It can also be a serious game: in days gone by, there used to be about 40 players per team and they didn’t play for sticks, but for valuable items such as toboggans and rifles, and nowadays, there are tournaments where there is big money to be won. People can play this game for days. It is such an important part of the culture that there are exhibits at the museum of games played in various eras, such as this one.
What makes the game entertaining, even for the observer, is the drumming and the behaviour of the players. To determine which team will start, i.e. the hiding team, the captains play against each other and the winner’s team goes first. The drumming then begins and everybody present gets involved in the game right away, as the drumming has a way of getting into your body and commanding your attention. The members of the hiding team all lean forward and place their hands under the tarp or a jacket, or between their thighs, so the other team can’t see what they’re doing. Once they’ve decided in which hand they will hide the token, they rise with fists either extended downward, or up at the shoulder with forearms crossed. They have to pick one posture and stick with it; they’re not allowed to switch back and forth to confuse their opponents. There is non-stop drumming and non-stop body motion to match, as the players are all bobbing and swaying to the rhythm. In order to pysche out their opponents, some are howling like wolves or making other animal noises, some are making gestures with their faces or arms, and others are faking them out and just plain teasing them. It’s all in good humour, the game is highly animated and you can feel the energy in the room. It’s also a lot of macho posturing, so I can understand why women might not be encouraged to play. But without a doubt, it’s a ton of fun for both players and onlookers.
Then the time arrives for the guessing. The captain claps to signal that he is ready to start. Other team members can also signal that they want to guess. The guessing is done non-verbally, with a set of hand signals, which is why I never quite understood it before. It’s quite intricate, as slight variations mean different things. For example, a closed fist with an index finger pointing to the left means one thing, add an upright thumb and it means something else. To complicate matters (or to simplify them, depending on your viewpoint), the captain can guess in segments, e.g. he can point to a gap between 2 players and indicate that everybody to the right or the left of the gap has the object in his left hand. With each correct guess, that player is out, and he has to show both open palms to prove that there has been no cheating. When the whole team is out, the next team starts the hiding. A full game consists of winning 2 rounds.
For the first round all of the players were men, but for the next round, 2 ladies stepped up to join one of the teams. That’s when things became rather interesting. One of them took up the guessing and immediately started knocking players out like dominoes, with correct guesses. The dumbfounded instructor joked that this was why women were not allowed to play, and you know what? I think he was only half-joking.
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