For one student attending school in Kitsumkalum, a project she started in her social studies class has gained recognition for bolstering a traditional game among youth and won her a trip to Vancouver.
Tyler Henry, a Grade 9 student at ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo school, entered an exhibit on the First Nations hand game lahal into the Northwest Regional Heritage Fair last month and was one of three students selected from more than 100 entries to attend the provincial competition at the University of British Columbia in July.
When researching the project, Henry quickly discovered that knowledge of the centuries-old game is disappearing among younger generations.
“Lahal started about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago and it has been passed through so many tribes that there’s different names for it and different ways to play it,” she explained.
“But it also started dying down around the time of residential schools and after that it was just lack of interest in the later generations.”
With the significance attached to the game in the Pacific Northwest, Henry, of Nisga’a descent, chose it for her project and will now teach it to her peers.
“It seemed so interesting, I’m still learning more myself, but I can’t wait until I actually get a chance to play it and teach others,” she said.
Following the heritage competition, Henry says she’s been getting noticed for her project.
“At SalmonFest, I had my display up and I had a lot of people come up and tell me their experiences with the games and how they used to play it when they were younger and how they were happy that they saw it because they noticed [the game] was going away,” she said about the event held in Prince Rupert.
Lahal is played by two teams and uses two sets of marked and unmarked sticks which are concealed in a player’s hands and passed back and forth with an opposing player then trying to guess the hand holding the unmarked one.
Progress is marked by scoring stick with the winner eventually accumulating all of the scoring sticks based on successful guesses.
Henry found that the game was previously banned and only allowed at funerals because the government saw it as gambling.
But in many communities across the province and into the U.S., lahal continues to be a tradition among a variety of generations.
“They have lahal tournaments and before the winning pot would be worth thousands. The winning pot often included blankets, clothing, shawls, horses, and buckskin,” she said.
The game is meant to be one of outwitting or distracting the opposing team so that they loose track of the unmarked stick, rather than a game of chance.
Henry also made lahal playing kits herself and sewed covers for the sticks. After giving some to the judges at the regional fair, she’s been selling game kits to raise money so she can attend the trip to Vancouver despite her recent diagnosis of non-epileptic seizures.
“Because of her condition, I have to accompany her down there,” explained her mom, Joy, who said the fundraising will help cover her travel.
Though Henry doesn’t know what to expect at the week-long provincial fair, she says she’s ready for whatever awaits.
The Henrys will be selling the kits online and at the Terrace National Aboriginal Day celebration June 17