Sunday, September 03, 2006

Hand Games

Labour Day Weekend is the biggest weekend of the year in Tulita. Every year the town hosts the National Hand Games Championship. It’s a three-day tournament with teams from all over the Northwest Territories and Northern Alberta competing for a 25,000 prize. It’s also a weekend of gambling and drunkenness for those who attend.

Hand Games is a misleading name. It’s a single game played by two teams of eight. It’s sort of a variation of Three-Card Monte. The basic premise is for one player to hide a stick in one of his hands, and for the other team to guess which hand it is in. It sounds like a two-player game. But at first, all eight pretend to have the stick, and the other team narrows it down one by one.

I first saw this played when we were living in our old house. I heard traditional drumming and singing coming from the community hall one Sunday night, so I went over to take a look. The players were seated in two semi circles, facing each other. Two young boys, about ten years old, were kneeling at the center, facing each other, bouncing up and down to the rhythm of the drumming. One would hide his hands behind his back, under his shirt, and under his arm-pits. Finally, after much writhing and twisting, he would present his two fists to the other team. The other ten-year-old would point to one fist or the other. When he was right, he would win the stick. Games go to a predetermined score, generally about fifteen points.

I’m sure you can see the potential for gambling here. Spectators can bet on individual hands in the game, on the outcome of each game, or the championship of the tournament. And with the tournament comes other events. Endless cookouts, house parties, and a big bingo for the ladies, which took place yesterday.

Of course, like any other time something is happening in town, I’m stuck in the store. I went in Saturday morning at 8:30, as usual. We open at ten. Before long we were hit with a rush of women trying to withdraw cash from the ATM. They also bought coffee, gum, Hawkins Cheesies and bingo dabbers. Those still in line near the top of the hour urged me to hurry, told me to keep the change, and then sprinted for the arena.

Men and women from out of town made all sorts of requests for odd and obscure brands of cigarettes. I had no idea there were so many name brands of smokes, each in 20 or 25 packs, king size, and various degrees of mildness and flavours.

“DO you have lucky 7’s extra mild king size?”

“Ahhhh, no. What’s the closest thing to that in DuMaurier or Players?”

“Just give me DuMaurier king size.”

At one slow point in the afternoon, I went to get a coffee. Some out-of-towner was filling up several cups of coffee.

“Will ten bucks pay for all of this?”

I did the math in my head (no small task for me).

“Yeah, you’ll be fine. Are you in the tournament?”

“Not really. I’m here with our team. Trying to sober them up a bit before they play. We got three thousand bucks on the line and all they care about is dumping more booze down their throats.”

Each community that sends a team sponsors them. There is an entrance fee of a thousand dollars or more. I’m not sure why some communities paid more than others.

At seven on Saturday night I had to make a delivery of pop to the arena. There were trucks all over the parking lot. Several women were cooking moose and fish over three smoking barrels. Folding tables protected by blue tarps were covered with freshly butchered moose. The head of a cow moose lay next to unrecognizable cuts of flesh, waiting to be cooked.

I could hear the drumming and chanting as soon as I got out of the truck. People were streaming in and out of the arena. As I walked inside, the vibrations of the drums started to reverberate in my chest. You have seen and heard drumming and chanting on TV, but until you are in the same room you will never understand the energy that comes with this. The only thing I can compare it to is a rock concert. Everyone’s attention is focused on the game. It is hypnotizing. I wanted to stay and watch, but instead I was carting loads of pop to the canteen. I briefly saw the two teams staring each other down. The fellow hiding the stick looked as if he were in a state of either pain or ecstasy. His eyes were rolling back in his head and his neck was twisting at odd angles. His arms were flailing about in rhythm to the drumming as he tried to hide the stick.

On Saturday night they had a talent show. This wasn’t your usual talent show. First they had a love song contest, where men and women got up and sang traditional love songs in native languages. Some of the songs were jokes, although the punch line was beyond me. Then they had an animal calling contest. Each participant stood up, announced the animal they would be calling, and then did their performance. Again, many were jokes, although I didn’t get the jokes. Nevertheless, it was great to get out into a carnival atmosphere.

The store has been unbelievably busy. We were supposed to close for the holiday Monday. There is no such thing as a long weekend when you work with this company, because it is against store policy to close two days in a row (the one exception being Christmas and Boxing Day). So we opened this afternoon for a “half-day.” Although the store was only open four hours, we came in an hour early, and stayed two hours after close. I guess when you work fourteen-hour days, only working seven hours is technically a half-day. Now the boss has decided to open the store tomorrow afternoon because so many people will be leaving town. It will again be a “half-day,” so at least I get to sleep in. Oh well. I’ll appreciate my weekends and evenings even more in a few years time when I get a nine to five job.