Yukon handgames tournament gets a new name to honour the elder who created it

This past weekend, the Yukon’s annual handgames tournament got a new name to honour the late elder who created it in the first place.

For over two decades, communities across the Yukon have travelled to Whitehorse for a handgames tournament held the last weekend of February. It was first organized by the late Elder Yvonne Ann Smarch in 1998.

Before this year, the event was called the Yukon Rendezvous Handgames Tournament. But it wasn’t an official part of Rendezvous programming.

“We’ve always had handgames on Rendezvous,” said Doronn Fox, president of the Yukon Handgames Society. “That tournament was always put on by the Indigenous community to have something that was separate from Rendezvous.”

Yukon Rendezvous, formerly called the Yukon “Sourdough” Rendezvous, turned 60 this year. Among many other festivities, the event has participants dress up in 19th century costumes in reference to the Klondike Gold Rush.

That connection hasn’t always sat well with Yukon First Nations.

Jackie Callahan, a close friend of Smarch and one of the memorial tournament organizers, said that Smarch saw handgames as a way to bring people together.

“She reached out to Rendezvous a couple of times to try and partner, but that didn’t happen,” Callahan said.

Smarch passed away in 2007. Since then, Callahan and other organizers have helped the event carry on.

This year, that one event became two.

Rendezvous organizers partnered with Doronn Fox and the Yukon Handgames Society to hold the first official joint event on Feb. 17 and 18.

The tournament will now be held each year on the last weekend of February.

“Snake Charmer” Shantay Karhut is the current executive director of Rendezvous. She said she was eager to incorporate handgames into the festival’s roster of events when she stepped into the role this year.

Karhut said Indigenous people have been involved with Rendezvous for years.

“But there’s a chance it […] wasn’t a good relationship,” she said.

“Relationships weren’t too healthy back in the day,” agreed Fox.

Fox said things have been different this year. He described the partnership between the two organizations as “honest, true and full-hearted.”

Karhut acknowledged that the inclusion of handgames in Rendezvous hasn’t gone over well in the past. But she said at its heart, the festival is about the whole territory coming together – which makes Indigenous programming essential.

yukon handgames tournament gets a new name to honour the elder who created it

Crowds gather at the Kwanlin Dün Nàkwät’à Kų̀ Potlatch House in Whitehorse for the Yvonne Ann Smarch Memorial Handgames Tournament on Feb. 24. (Caitrin Pilkington/CBC)

“As far as old-timers not thinking handgames is an event for Rendezvous, I absolutely disagree,” she said. “Rendezvous is the community’s and the Yukon’s festival.”

Fox said it also took time for some communities to come around to the idea.

“Handgames is a traditional game,” he said. “There’s spirituality [to it.] So when we started talking about this tournament, we had to talk to all of our elders, all around the whole Yukon, about what this meant.”

The 2024 Rendezvous tournament focused on youth, and passing on the tradition to the next generation. It drew families from Mayo to Pelly Crossing to Ross River.

Callahan announced the change as part of the first event’s kickoff on Feb. 17.

She describes the move as “a long time coming,” and a piece of recognition that was deeply appreciated by Smarch’s family. Members of the Smarch family declined to speak to the CBC for this story.

“We never had anything to do with Rendezvous,” Callahan said. “And what better way to honour Yvonne, as she’s the one that started this tournament, than to name it after her?”

Smarch was the one who first introduced her to handgames.

“Her daughters were pretty much the same age as me, and I grew up closely with them. She started taking us to handgames tournaments when we were 13.”

Callahan spoke about Smarch at thr tournaments. Both times, she said she ended up in tears.

“Yvonne was a huge part of my life,” she said. “So it was hard. But it feels good that we’re doing this for her. And making it beautiful, in honour of her.”

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