Monday, December 17, 2007

Fort Smith Aboriginal Games

Fort Smith NWT 21st June 2007

A two hour flight from Edmonton (not forgetting the flight from London, the flight from Cork...) in a thirty two seat Jet-Stream aircraft gets us here. Like much of northern Canada we are flying over forest and lakes. Another feature of Northern Canada, a forest fire burns in the west and a huge plume of smoke crosses the sky in front of us.

We book in at the Pelican Rapids Hotel. The outside of which is the ugliest building I’ve ever seen. Flat roof, but they’ve managed to stick a row of cedar shingles along the top. Totally surrounded by concrete and a derelict building opposite. The rooms are an improvement even though we are reminded to keep the windows shut when we leave the room. Not to keep out the mosquitos but some of the thieving locals (mostly native indians) who make up 50% of the population of this frontier town. The place we are told, is full of crime.

The morning of 21st June 2007 dawns clear. And so begins a unique and uplifting experience we’re not likely to repeat. Whilst we were in Edmonton I'd read that today was 'Aboriginal Day' in Canada and that there would be aboriginal games taking place in many places including Fort Smith. A life long interest in 'Indians' and ethnology meant this was going to be an unique experience prior to our paddle down the Thelon. We stroll down to the games. A rather grand title for what is a rather casually laid on event spread over a wide area of open ground on the edge of the huge Slave River. (By huge I mean it makes the River Thames look like a stream.)

The games are going to be :-

  • Moose calling
  • Goose calling
  • Muskrat calling
  • Moccasin races
  • Log sawing
  • Spear throwing
  • Axe Throwing
  • Archery

Already going when we arrived mid morning was the atmospheric ‘hand guessing game’. This pan American game is a skilled affair. A participant a stick or bone and hides it in one of their hands whilst their hand is hidden under a blanket. It is the turn of the opposition to then guess which hand. Points are awarded for individual or team. Gambling on the winner is a prime objective. The atmospheric touch comes from the drummers. The fast paced drumming matches the speed of the game as each team rhythmically points to the hand they think has the object. This game keeps on all day. Trish and Myself are virtually the only non Indians present. I watch as Cree, Chipewayn & Metis watch or stroll around as we do.

I feel way out of depth to take part in any of the games. I know nothing of the goose calling except that several of the men do a fine imitation of the noise Canada geese make whilst flying. We stroll into a tent where an elderly Indian women is making bannock and rolling it on a stick for people to cook over an open fire. I ask here if she has ever done this in the wilderness. A silly question as she tells me she has spent all her life in ‘the bush’ during the hunting season preparing such food. This is a town of hunters.

I get invited to take part in the spear throwing. I feel embarrassed, as I feel I am an intruder.

Trish being shown how to cook bannock

But I get asked again. OK. We are faced with throwing a ‘spear’ (OK,Javelin!) thirty yards into a 2’X2’ board laid on the ground. I watch as as some thirty Indians, male and female go before me. Only one or two hit the target and only one young male hits it twice. Its my go. My first shot misses by a few feet. The next two are spot on. Trish tells me I mustn't win - but I’m too competitive to worry too much about political correctness.

I have a go at the archery. One of the local Indian women has a go. She has the word ‘Indian’ tattooed on her calf. She can’t hold or fire the bow properly. I step up and show her. (something to add to my cv). I win this competition. Another indian stands at my side, long black shiny hair down to his waist and discusses the finer points of archery.

Axe throwing is the next. Everyone throws and either hits the target, a log upright in the ground, or misses completely. An elderly Indian picks up the axes and all three end up sticking in the log. Impressive. I manage to get two stuck in the log. Trish is embarrassed. Am I going to win? He later tells me that when he was a kid he used to make and fire bows made from birch, a material I’ve not heard of being used before. He tells me about his younger days hunting in the forest and trapping game in the depths of winter. Him and his wife used to spend all winter in the bush hunting and travelling. He can speak three local languages. Then he goes on to tell me about his own father who used to speak several languages and travel across Canada in the winter times hunting. I ask him how you say thank you in his language. He uses the French. Then tells me that in his Chipwayan language there is no word for thankyou. You were always expected to help others so there was no need for such a word.

The playoff - I feel like a fish out of water

Its announced later that I am joint winner along with two other local Indians. We’re invited up for the play off. Then they announce that to win the first prize of a free return flight to Yellowknife we must make the call of a male and female moose. I tell the chief Jim Beaver that I cannot take the prize and nor can I imitate a moose. I’ve not even seen one!. But there’s no mercy – he thrusts the megaphone into my hand and I’m on. “look I’m afraid I’ve never seen a moose, I’m not sure there is even one in Dublin Zoo or the whole of Ireland”. The crowd looks on expectantly. I imitate a tortured chicken with a sore throat and everyone laughs. Then the other two make sounds that can only have been learned by practice and long periods of listening to them deep in the forest. To my untrained ears they all sound alike but a winner is chosen and I make runner up.

We rejoin the dancing and are invited to dance with others in a circle. There is only one other ‘white’ person present. I feel privileged that we entered and took part in a unique event. The day ends with a feast of traditional white fish and game. I ask another Indian if they can imitate any other game and I listen to calls mimicking Beaver, Musk Rat and others. These are truly hunters of the north.

The next day in ‘Smith, Indians great me with cheery smiles and “Hi Dave from England”. The next day we fly north to the Thelon.

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