The crowd roars as Jay Masuzumi flashes a grin and waves his fingers to show his empty palm.
Once again, he’s fooled the other side’s captain and won another stick for his team at the hand games tournament in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.
Masuzumi plays with flare and style as he shimmies and shakes, hoots and hollers with the beat of the drum, competing against players who’ve been playing this game longer than he’s been alive.
“I just play whichever way I want. I like to mess around and have fun — all smiles,” he says.
Colville Lake Chief Wilbert Kochon and his team of Sahtu chiefs won the weekend’s $22,500 prize, but nearly every one of the 24 teams at this weekend’s Fort Good Hope/Colville Lake Oudzi (hand games) tournament had a contingent of players under 30 — and they came to win.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of young people have taken up hand games as the tournaments have grown bigger. Youth are now gaining enough experience that they can seriously compete for some of the tournament’s biggest prizes.
Masuzumi is 21, but has about a decade of experience playing the traditional Dene sport of hand games. It’s played throughout North America, but is especially popular in the Northwest Territories, where the biggest tournaments have cash prizes of up to $100,000.
“We’ve been playing for a long time now, almost 10 years together,” Masuzumi says. “We know each other, we know how to play together.”
After losing their opening round match Saturday morning, Masuzumi’s team, captained by Talen Drybone, started rolling. They ripped off four straight wins Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon as they finished fourth, splitting $9,000 between the eight players.
Did Masuzumi feel intimidated by the older players during that stretch?
“No, never,” he says.
Taking the lead
The tournament co-hosted by Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake is the first big money event of the year in the Northwest Territories, with teams coming in from all over the territory.
It’s the first time 16-year-old Ethan Tutcho wasn’t on the same team as his dad and other members of his family. Instead, he played with friends from his hometown of Norman Wells.
They too lost their first game against one of the teams from Deline, but Tutcho said his team felt they were in a good spot to make a run over the rest of the tournament.
“We just had a bit of frustration there at the beginning. We started missing, they started messing with our minds,” he said.
Tutcho’s been playing for about five years, since he was 11 years old, and is developing into a leader. He’s one of the team’s “shooters,” responsible for weeding out where the other team’s players hid their stones.
“I don’t play it for the money, I just love the game,” he said. “I love the singing, moving around. I love playing. It’s hard to explain.”
Their team also plays with confidence and flash, looking sharp in handmade vests, colourful baseball caps and gold crosses on chains hanging around their necks.
For Tutcho, the best part of the hand games is when it’s his turn to hide the stone, the key sleight-of-hand deception in hand games while his team is supported by an army of drummers.
“That drumming, it feels good. Sometimes it follows your heartbeat. It gives you more of that energy, more of that vibe.”
‘We want one of the young teams to win’
This is the way it’s supposed to be, explained Thomas Manuel, an elder who lives in Fort Good Hope.
Manuel played on the team of Fort Good Hope elders, nicknamed “the oldtimers.” They played in front of a packed house Friday night, with at least 100 people gathered around the mat to watch.
“We want one of the young teams to win. They should get the money — they deserve it,” Manuel said. “We want them to play and have fun, so they keep coming back [and] keep it going for the next generation.”
If that happens, other players across the territory may need to step up their game.
That’s because Jay Masuzumi, Ethan Tutcho and the rest of the young players who competed in Fort Good Hope this weekend say they plan to keep shimmying, shaking and drumming for a long time.
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