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The northern Athapaskan peoples , or Dene, are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Northern Regions of Canada and Alaska. The Traditional Lands of the Dene extend from the interior of Alaska across the Yukon and the Northwest Territories east to Hudson’s Bay. The Dene consists of several regional groups all of whom speak their own language. Certain differences do exist, but neighboring groups can usually understand each other’s language. This is also true of the Traditional Dene Games where by there are differences in the same game played by different Dene Regions.
In the Old days, Dene made their living on the land. Survival depended on hunting , fishing, and during late summer and fall, gathering berries in the areas around the fish camps. People relied on the resources that the land provided. Dene people had the one basic thing in common; surviving and traveling on the land. It was through their travels that the people most closely connected with the land and through this connection it influenced the Games in which the Dene people played. These games prepared them for surviving on the land and tested their skills in strength, endurance, speed and even pain resistance. Games were not only intended for fun at gatherings but also prepared them for what laid ahead; and to survive on the land

The Games below are the most popular Games played and are also played at the Arctic Winter Games.

Finger Pull

The finger pull is a test of strength endurance and maximal strength of the arm and pulling hand. One player is on offense and the other on defense. For the player on defense, pain endurance may also be a determining factor in deciding the winner of the contest. It is a game that comes from people in Alaska. 

Hand Games:

Also known as Stick Gambling. This is one of the most important traditional games among the Yukon and NWT First Nations, in the Sahtu and Deh Cho, and among the Dogrib and Chipewyan people. Any festive occasion will provide a good opportunity to play. The game is not as wide-spread among the Gwich’in. It is important to understand, that the hand signals used often differ from community to community. Hand Games is a game of guessing and deceiving and played to a chorus of drums and usually is the liveliness of all Dene Games.

Snow Snake

This is a game is played in the winter and was often used to test accuracy, power or technique.  Traditionally a hunting tool to catch small game, in competition it is used as a distance game. Similar to the Javelin in track and field the person that throws the spear the farthest wins. With Snow snake however the spear is thrown underhand and along the ground.

Stick Pull

In some Alaskan Gwich’in communities, the stick was decorated with eagle feathers which were tied to the centre of the stick with beaded strings. In the summer, people from the communities of Arctic Village, Fort Yukon and Chalkyisik met and competed in the Stick Pull. The winning team took the stick back to their community, ready to compete for it again during the following summer. 

In the winter, the game was often played after a successful hunt, when everybody had put away a good supply of meat. The chief, an elder or one of the successful hunters invited the people to a feast. After everybody had eaten, the men and boys joined in the Stick Pull. On these occasions, bear grease was used to grease the stick. It was also used to simulate catching fish.   The concept of the Game is to pull the stick from your opponent’s hand.

Pole Push:

Around 1870, Gwitch’in on the Alaskan side would play the Pole Push at feasts held in honor of an important person who had passed away. On those occasions the game was played over a fire in the middle of the playing area. The player first in line on the stronger team in consequence had the ‘privilege’ of being warmed up quite thoroughly – a rather unusual motivation for winning the competition.  Today teams of four try and push the other team out of a circle, the game requires strength endurance and maximal strength. 

Hoop and Pole:

The Hoop and Pole game was considered to be a useful part of a boys’ education. Boys who began to learn the skills of a good hunter, were encouraged to play the Hoop and Pole game. It increased the boys’ agility and sureness of aim, and also trained them in the proper use of the spear and arrow. The game was played throughout the seasonal cycle. After freeze up it could be played on the ice of a river or lake.

Moose Skin Ball

Also know as Slavey Handball or Keep Away Ball and resembles a combination of Volleyball, Handball and Rugby. This was a fun game played during the long summer days. The whole community participates, men, women, boys and girls. The game would last for hours, no score was kept, and there were neither losers nor winners.

Dene Swing

A game played for fun, and is hardly played today, but is remembered by the elders as a non-competitive game providing great excitement. A competitive version of the was often accompanied by gambling. The Game was only played in the summer because it was believed if played in the winter it would cause the winter to be long and cold. The object of the Game is to try and swing each other off the swing.

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