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Northern games renew skills and camaraderie

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WHA TI, Northwest Territories - Feverishly fanning the flames, the trick is
to keep your cool while the temperature is getting warm.

An actual contest, tea boiling highlighted the first day of competition at
the annual Dene summer games Aug. 28 - 29. Combining a mixture of
traditional skills with contemporary sports, this weekend of activities
draws its participants from the numerous small villages that dot the
Northwest Territories. The affair's host for a second straight year was Wha
Ti, a fly-in community of 400 a half hour northwest of Yellowknife.

During tea boiling, the object is to boil water and create tea as fast as
possible. In this two-person race, the woman runs to an adjacent lake to
fill a pail with water while the man slices the pieces of wood to start a
fire. Handicapping the contest is the fact that only five matches are
permitted and failure to ignite a blaze by then results in a
disqualification.

Literally hot and heavy, this affair drew an audience of other participants
and villagers to crowd the open campfires. Each additional flicker of light
drew more cheers and as the bubbles boiled inside the can, the crowd too
waited to erupt to declare a victor.

Each team consists of six players of three women and three men. The winning
team was Alice Naedzo and James Lafferty from Rae-Edzo that, not
coincidentally, was also the duo to ignite the first bonfire. Expressing
his pleasure in having used only one match out of the allotted six,
Lafferty said the trick is to start small.

"I made a shim (thin slivers of sticks) and just started to pile the wood,"
said Lafferty. "In the bush you can make tea from the snow in 10 minutes."

Coordinating the Dene games was Lawrence Nitsiza, who has been the
recreation director at Wha Ti for the past 11 years. The games were revived
in the late 1980s and has seen the height of their popularity reach to
where there were up to 10 communities involved.

Only three outside towns made the trip this year but the smaller numbers in
no way detracted from the games' objective of having fun. If anything,
there was more intimacy and spirit among the 13 events.

Several generations ago the purpose of this gathering, Nitsiza said, was to
promote the traditional abilities of living off the land. In the past
decade he's seen how the youth have resumed these hunting abilities and
continued the traditions of their elders.

"Most of the skills are used in the communities because people go out into
the bush and this is part of our survival," said Nitsiza. "I've seen a lot
of people my age that have participated because it was passed on to us."

With challenges such as log sawing, spear throwing and archery honoring the
historical ties of the Dene (First Nations of the Northwest Territories),
it's the two-person Dene baseball that draws the most vigorous applause.
Played similar to cricket where the batter and teammate run between bases
along a straight line, this amalgamation of sports moves much faster.
Limited to seven-minute games, outs can come fast and furious.

All balls connecting with the bat are in play, even slight deflections,
adding to the excitement is when hits are smashed. With the defense sent
scrambling, spectators scurry to avoid touching the soft ball, made up of
moss-filled caribou hide.

Nothing screams "a triple" in Indian country more than a batted ball that
rattles around the axle of an ATV. The victorious team was, again, Alice
Naedzo and teammate Dave Jeremick'ca, as his batsmanship included several
drives into the trees surrounding the lake.

"The trick is to have the right arc and to look for the open space to where
you want the ball to go," Jeremick'ca described about determining how the
ball can be purposefully whacked.

Hand games preceded the closing ceremony and as Wha Ti of the Dogrib First
Nation successfully defended its overall title, Nitsiza concluded the
ultimate victory was everyone coming together.