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Northern Alberta coach brings back Arctic Games medals in Dene sports

Conklin resident goes from athlete to coach at Arctic Winter Games

Conklin’ Shania Desjarlais was the head coach for young athletes from northern Alberta competing in the Arctic Winter Games earlier in March. 

Desjarlais coached athletes competing in the Dene sports during the Games that took place in Mat-Su, Alaska from March 10-16.  

The Dene Games were a unique category in addition to the 17 other sporting competitions at the Games.   

 Desjarlais says there are five main games included within the Dene Games , three are individual — Stick Pull, Finger Pull and Snow Snake — and two are team games; Hand Games and Pole Push. She explained that these games showcase the traditional way the Dene people would hunt in order to survive.    

Using an example, she said the Snow snake mimics a snake slithering through the snow, adding that the ‘snake’ is a long stick pointed at the tip to hunt down animals – mainly caribou – when they would be sleeping. Depending on how far and fast hunters threw the stick, she continued, would be the deciding factor regarding whether or not they had a meal that night.  

Desjarlais said each of the five games all tell a story and a teaching, which is why they are practiced across the circumpolar north today.    

“These games bring people together…there is a lot of cross-cultural exchange and it's a beautiful thing to be a part of and to witness,” she stated.    

Desjarlais said there are four age categories in Dene Games and four athletes per category. She added that these games were the first games to have an "open female" category, saying that the team witnessed history being made.    

She said that Team Alberta North usually has tryouts the year prior to the games, so the team already had 12 athletes selected before the Games.  

A total of eight contingents, she said, participated in the Arctic Winter Games. They are Alaska, Greenland, Northwest Territories, Nunavik-Quebec, Nunavut, Sampi, Yukon and Alberta North.   

When the team first arrived in Alaska, she continued, the feelings amongs the players before the games got underway were a mixture of excitement and nervousness. However, after a day or so, with the team bonding and making friends from pin trading, this helped to alleviate the anxiety most were experiencing.  

   “Overall, the feelings at the end of the games …there was joy, thankfulness, happiness and a bit of sadness that the games came to an end,” she stated. “I am super proud of our girls…all four came home with silver and bronze (medals). They took second in Hand Games and third in Pole Push.” 

While this may have been Desjarlais’ first trip to Alaska, it was the fourth time she’d been to the Arctic Winter Games. Her first experience with the major sporting competition came in 2016 when she was 15. She competed as part of Team Alberta North in the Dene Games that took place in Nuuk, Greenland. In 2018 she competed in the Games in Hay River, NT. She returned to the Games in 2023 as a coach, overseeing the Alberta North team at the Games in Fort McMurray. 

Desjarlais was pleased to be selected as the Dene Games coach again this year.  

From coaching at the last games to these games, she says, it was an honour to watch the team(s) open up, grow, come together and to see them live these experiences. 

“Being from Conklin and this being my fourth Games, it makes me feel proud to represent my community and honoured to be that role model for local youth,” she said. “I was super stoked and excited to help guide a group of youth for a once in a lifetime experience.” 


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