Meet 3 Indigenous Athletes Building Cultural Connections Through Sports

As Halifax prepares to host the 2020 North American Indigenous Games next July, we asked writer Nahnda Garlow—from an Onondaga beaver clan family—to introduce us to the games and three athletes whose love of sports connects them to their cultures.
 

Photos by (left to right): Steve Collins, Dean Casavechia and Katie Marie.

There is much cultural variety among the traditions of Indigenous people across Turtle Island, our name for North America. The Potlatch ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest are nothing like the Stirring Ashes tradition among the Haudenosaunee of the Eastern Woodlands. In spite of our differences, we have built a millennia of historic relationships via traditional trade routes. Perhaps this is part of the reason why we Indigenous folk love an inter-nation gathering—a founding truth of the North American Indigenous Games.

“Another truth is that we love a friendly competition.”

In the 1970s, the idea of holding an all-Indigenous meeting of athletes from across North America began. The first event, called the Native Summer Games, was hosted by the Enoch Cree near Edmonton, Alta., in 1971.

Another truth is that we love a friendly competition, so no one was going to let the Enoch Cree get away with its bragging rights for too long. Over the next few years, a handful of Indigenous organizations held their own “native Olympics,” and the idea of holding an official North American games began to take shape. In 1977, Willie Littlechild, an award-winning athlete and the first person from Alberta Treaty First Nation to receive a law degree from the University of Alberta, presented the motion for a sporting event during a gathering of Indigenous nations in Sweden. It was agreed to unanimously. History says one Brazilian elder was so moved, he gifted a traditional war arrow to Littlechild. It was used at the opening ceremonies of the very first North American Indigenous Games in Edmonton in 1990.

Halifax will host the 2020 North American Indigenous Games for eight days next summer. An estimated 5,000 Indigenous athletes between the ages of 13 and 19 will compete in 15 sports—from basketball and lacrosse to archery.


Connecting with Community: Alan Spoonhunter

Allan Spoonhunter, photo by Steve Collins

Age: 18
Sport: Basketball
From: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Nations: Ktunaxa, Blackfoot and Northern Arapaho

Alan Spoonhunter is a basketball star. The six-foot-five-inch player received the SaskTel Indigenous Youth Award of Excellence in 2018 for his achievements in sports and recreation, and, while personal accolades are nice, he says team success is what matters to him.

“Team victories. That’s my family,” says Spoonhunter, whose high school team, the St. Joseph Guardians, won the Saskatoon championships from 2016 to 2018, and the provincial title in 2018. “Nothing else really compares to that for me.”

Spoonhunter says being able to connect with his teammates drives him during the game and life. “I can go back to Saskatoon right now and, any guy on those basketball teams, I would have a connection with them like I wouldn’t have with anybody else,” he says.

“Surround yourself with people that love you.”

Alan Spoonhunter

Spoonhunter incorporates “Rezball” flair into his gameplay. Equal parts fierce and chill, with a focus on quick shooting, strong defence and bonds among teammates, Rezball is increasing in popularity across North America thanks to some impressive Indigenous players at the college level. Spoonhunter is now the class of 2020 guard at the exclusive Edge School, an athletics-based academic program in Calgary, Alta. The team travelled to Toronto this March for the national championships, but fell short of the win. It doesn’t phase Spoonhunter.

“We may have lost the national championship but we’re all brothers. We’d all die for each other. We’d all do anything for each other. When you win an M.V.P. award, it’s like, ‘Okay, cool.’ But a championship; everything you went through with everybody, mentally and physically up to that point, it’s so much more special.

“Surround yourself with people that love you,” Spoonhunter says. “Work hard and believe in yourself. There’s going to be other people that may tell you you’re making the wrong move—just trust yourself and trust the work you’re putting into your goals.”

Connecting with Family: Kimaura Schindler

Kimaura Schindler, photo by Katie Marie.

Age: 14
Sport: Lacrosse
From: Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont.
Nation: Cayuga

For the Haudenosaunee people of the Eastern Woodlands, lacrosse is a tradition. According to Indigenous knowledge keepers, the game was a gift given by the Creator as a healing medicine and for enjoyment. Kimaura Schindler comes from a Cayuga wolf clan family with deep roots in that tradition. She is a fourth generation elite lacrosse player.

The 14-year-old’s Indigenous name is Enahaogwahs—“She picks up the seeds”—a sentiment she embodies. Building on an incredible ancestry in the sport, Schindler has chosen to invest herself in her family legacy and make it her own. Her father, Gewas Schindler, was an all-American at Loyola University Maryland. After, he played with the all-Indigenous Iroquois Nationals. Her uncle, Sid Smith, was first drafted in 2009 for the National Lacrosse League’s Rochester Knighthawks in the United States and has won nearly every major lacrosse championship. If that’s not enough, in 1999, her grandfather, Roger “Buck” Smith, was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, located in New Westminster, B.C.

Schindler’s Indigenous name is Enahaogwahs—“She picks up the seeds.”

That is just the men in her family. Schindler’s mother, Tia, her grandmother, Ginny Smith, and great-grandmother, Gloria Sky, all played lacrosse. An intergenerational lacrosse legacy among females is a rarity.

Schindler plays midfield/defence for the Rochester’s Monster Elite Lacrosse team, now ranked fifth overall in the U.S. Twice a week, she makes a six-hour journey from her home on Six Nations of the Grand River—an hour and a half from Toronto—to New York State for practices. She is currently the only Indigenous player on the team and says she is happy to be there. “I feel proud when I get to share our teachings with my team,” says Schindler.


Did You Know?

Lacrosse is the official summer sport of Canada. The Canadian Lacrosse Association and the Kahnawake Mohawks will host the 2019 President’s Cup, in Kahnawake, Que., across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 1.


Connecting with Others: Mattea Bernard

Mattea Bernard, photo by Dean Casavechia.

Age: 14
Sport: Archery
From: Millbrook First Nation, N.S.
Nations: Mi’kmaq and Okanogan

Growing up in small First Nations communities in Canada presents several unique challenges, from education to health care, for youth across Turtle Island. For this reason, leaders on reserves understand the impact extracurricular activities can have on the experience of growing up Indigenous.

For Mattea Bernard, an opportunity to get involved in archery arose when she was around 12 years old. Several years before, her godfather decided to engage with the youth in Millbrook First Nation, a small reserve in Nova Scotia, by launching an archery program at the community gym.

Bernard showed an aptitude for using the traditional, old-fashioned bow.

“My godfather took me to a couple of shoots just for fun and I started enjoying it more,” says Bernard. It wasn’t long before she showed an aptitude for using the traditional, old-fashioned bow.

Now 14 years old, Bernard is shooting at a competitive level, preferring to use a long recurve bow. In 2018, she won a gold medal at the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games, held on Goat Island, part of the traditional territory of the Eskasoni First Nation.

“My favourite archery shoots are during summer games because I get to see people I met from past years,” she says.

With the announcement that Halifax won the bid to host the 2020 North American Indigenous Games, Millbrook First Nation will host some of the sporting events on its traditional territory. Bernard hopes to participate in the games and make new friends with other indigenous youth from around the world on a similar journey. “I haven’t tried out for the team, yet, but I want to,” says Bernard. “During the last [Mi’kmaw Summer Games], I was the only one in my category.”


A Running Past

Many of the events at the North American Indigenous Games, including archery, canoeing and lacrosse, have clear stories connecting them to Indigenous life. But, running also has a long tradition in Indigenous cultures.

The Haudenosaunee people were noted by early Jesuit missionaries as being tall, lean and athletic. Part of this physicality is likely connected to the way the Haudenosaunee communicated from village to village. To get information to the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca communities—called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—chiefs and clan mothers would appoint “runners” to carry messages. They would travel for days at a time, running messages through the eastern woodlands and mountains of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

They would travel for days at a time, running messages through the eastern woodlands.

Tom Longboat was a world renowned long-distance runner from the Onondaga Nation at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. He famously smashed cultural barriers, becoming the first Indigenous person to win the Boston Marathon in 1907 and competed at the 1908 Olympics in London.

For the Diné nations in the Southwestern U.S., running served both a practical and spiritual purpose. It is so much a part of Diné culture that it is a component of Kinaaldá, a four-day coming-of-age ceremony for young women. Ceremonial runs are held each day to prepare girls for the future by teaching both physical and psychological endurance, and connecting runners to the land. Today, the Navajo have a 55-kilometre race through the Canyon de Chelly, the Canyon de Chelly Ultra, with people from around the world invited to come and experience the ceremonial aspects of a Diné run on its traditional territory.

[This story appears in the June 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]

Read more stories on Indigenous culture in Canada