The finger pull is based on strength traditionally needed for fishing
FAIRBANKS - The finger pull is an excruciating test of endurance: It’s also one of the most painful events to watch at the Arctic Winter Games.
“It’s really difficult because if you mess up and let your fingers go your tendons will snap up,” explained Misty May Wilmarth Agoff from Team Alaska. “You have to really know your technique to be able to pull without getting hurt.”
Occasionally, though, that happens. One competitor from Team Yukon snapped her finger back and writhed in pain on the floor, grabbing her arm until medics arrived.
Officials keep a close eye on athletes to make sure there are no infractions, like twisting or jerking.
They said it can be hard to watch though.
“You feel the guys pain, physically, when they’re going through it,” said Dene Games Official Peter Daniels. “Then there are the female girls when they’re going through it and crying and you want to feel sorry for them and give them a big group hug kind of thing. It’s a game of pain, this one, for sure.”
“Good! Hold it, hold it, hold it, HOLD IT!” shouted Marjorie Tahbone. She’s played the finger pull for years; this year she’s coaching Team Alaska.
“It’s always super painful to have to keep pulling because it’s only one finger, twice or potentially three times,” Tahbone said. “It’s only your right hand and it’s only your middle finger. After 10 or 15 pulls it’s extremely painful. So I don’t want my girls to take an extra pull if they don’t have to.”
The game is based on strength ancestors needed when they were fishing.
“The Dene people were living on the land,” Daniels said. “A lot of time the fishing camps, the men and women would use their middle finger as a carry and put it through the gills to bring the fish up to the main camp.”
He said that skill also came in handy when they were tanning a moose hide.
“Just like the game, you can’t twist, you can’t jerk,” he gestured, turning his wrist. “If you tried pulling moose hide that way you’d rip it. So it’s a very practical game. All the Dene games are made from living off the land, a lot of hunting and harvesting situations.”
Athletes said it means a lot to them that the Dene games are included at the Arctic Winter Games.
“Lots of pride,” Tahbone said. “Just to be proud of who they are and where they come from and to play a sport their ancestors participated in a long time ago.”
Playing through the pain is just part of the game. It’s a life lesson to keep going when things get tough.