APTN National News
For more than 5,000 youth from across the continent, the North American Indigenous Games were a chance to showcase their athleticism and team spirit – and for many, the games offered more than that.
“Honestly, for us, it was really spiritual, cultural,” said Keegan Charlie from Team BC, his voice hoarse after a week at the games. “That’s probably why my voice is like this, we’ve been drumming and singing. All in the name of unity of all BC and good sportsmanship and expressing our culture too.”
At the closing ceremony, Team BC jumped to its feet when it was announced that it had won the Overall Team Champion award.
With more than 500 athletes, British Columbia was the largest team, winning the most medals with a total of 176.
Charlie goes on stage to accept the award along with soccer coach and residential school survivor Alex Nelson.
Leading up to NAIG, Team BC’s U16 boys’ soccer team picked a new name, ‘94 Calls,’ in honour of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Nelson stepped up to the podium and spoke about the significance of the name change, and holding government and everyone else accountable for implementing the TRC’s calls to action.
“The intent is for people to ask that question – oh that’s an interesting name for a soccer team; 94 calls. There again, it starts to stimulate dialogue,” said Nelson, in an interview with APTN. “We never ever lose sight of our history because we need to know who we are. And so that’s where the era of residential schools and now the healing and reconciliation notion comes into play.”
Team 88 insignia is everywhere at these games; on clothing and flags and banners.
A central theme of NAIG2017, was centered on the TRC Call to Action #88, which calls “upon all levels of government to take action to ensure long-term Aboriginal athlete development and growth.”
Nelson said he knows the importance of that firsthand. He was sent to residential school at age seven. He recalls how the staff would toss out a soccer ball and he and his peers would play outside. It was a chance to escape the confines of the school.
“It was soccer that seemed to be a real spiritual place for me, to maintain my sanity while I was there,” said Nelson. “Now, I look back on that and it’s very clear to me that soccer is not just a sport; it’s freedom. And it was my saving grace.”
Sports, said Nelson, is a path forward.
“It’s an opportunity for us to stand our young people up,” he said. “I said to them, be proud. Know where you come from, who you are. And exercise your voice. The world needs to hear from you.”
Team Yukon’s Jesse Kates is bouncing with energy. The 14-year-old had a lot of laughs this week, but more than that, she’s going home to Whitehorse with a silver medal in U16 women’s archery.
“I felt amazing, like I had such a rush,” said Kates, who’s already planning for the next NAIG in 2020. “I would love to come back.”
She competed in the instinctual event, with a bow and arrow more like her ancestors would have used.
“It’s kind of traditional for me, my family. My dad, he does the instinctual. He goes hunting with it sometimes too,” said Kates. “They’ll just be so proud of me!”
Kates shows off her extensive collection of team pins she’s been collecting all week. And on Saturday evening, over 3,000 youth roam around the ceremony grounds, making last minute trades before they all head home.
For the young athletes competing in fourteen sports over the last week, the North American Indigenous games is an experience they’ll never forget.
“Team Nunvaut came together as a family. I love all these guys and I wish I could really redo it,” said Austin Kaza. “I’m going to miss them a lot.”
Kaza, from Iqaluit, played on the U19 basketball team. They didn’t win a medal, but he calls their performance “a big milestone,” and recounts with enthusiasm how they beat Team Nova Scotia in a close game that went into overtime.
“Team Nunavut has never won more than one game at a national event and this year we won two and lost two,” said Kaza. “This was the best team Nunavut has ever done.”
Six Nations Chief Ava Hill took her turn at the podium and told the athletes they’re all winners, whether they’re going home with a medal or not. And when Team PEI, goes on stage to collect the award for best sportsmanship, the applause and cheers are loud.
One of Charlie’s most memorable moments was when he was chosen as Team BC’s flag bearer in NAIG’S opening ceremony.
And though, making friends and team building are all part of the experience, make no mistake; winning feels good.
Charlie is still riding a high from Team BC’s victory in U19 men’s soccer, beating out Team Saskatchewan in the final.
“When we scored the winning goal to bring home the gold for soccer, that was huge,” said Charlie. “There was nothing like it. That was the biggest game of our lives. It was unforgettable.”
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