The first week of July 2017 was a thrilling one for me as I was seconded to the 2nd World Indigenous Nations (WIN) Games as the International Coordinator. I split my time between Canada Place, the Enoch Cree First Nation and Mascwacis to welcome indigenous athletes from across Canada and around the world
To say it was an amazing experience would be an understatement. It was powerful and profound to see hundreds of delegates from two dozen countries come together in celebration of themselves and each other as indigenous peoples through sport.
Treaty 6 Grand Chief and WIN Games Ambassador J. Wilton Littlechild, who has dedicated 40-plus years towards using sports for empowerment, spoke at the Opening Ceremonies in Bear Park about the power of sports as a human right for all. “This is a celebration about life: for youth to be proud of their culture, to choose life over other options,” he said.
Marcos Terena, the founder of the first Games in Palmas, Brazil in 2015, brought soil from his home territory to share with Treaty 6, and the Mayor of Palmas gave Chief Littlechild a baton carved out of natural Brazilian wood. Chief Billy Morin added eagle feathers to represent Canada and it will continue to grow as these Games travel to different countries in the future (Columbia appears to be the heavy favourite as the 2019 host).
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennet spoke about Reconciliation as more than just words and promises, while provincial Indigenous Affairs Minister Richard Feehan highlighted what Alberta is doing to ensure clean water and an expanded, indigenous-focused educational curriculum. Reconciliation is one of the Gamechangers for EndPovertyEdmonton, as well as a major priority for the City of Edmonton, allowing for synergies between these Games and longer term, meaningful work on Treaty 6 Territory.
There were singers and musicians including Asani, the Logan Alexis drummers, a young local girl from Enoch who sang the national anthem in Cree and an amazing Russian throat singer from Yakutia. It all finished with an enormous round dance. Anyone who missed it can watch it all again at the Aboriginal People’s Television Network website, APTN.ca.
Then the Games began! Each day started with prayers, drumming and a sunrise ceremony followed by a mix of mainstream sports like soccer and basketball along with traditional ones such as spear-throwing, log carrying, archery and sand races. Each evening at Kitaskinaw School, where most athletes resided, settled into demonstration Games such as Dene hand games and the high kick from Northwest Territories. There was also a series of conferences and knowledge exchanges led by foreign dignitaries like Dr. Alexandra Grigorieva from the Yurta Mira association in Yakutsk, Russia and Master’s student Jocabed Solano from Panama, who spoke about the universal appeal of “the Grandmother’s Song” to local communities.
With canoeing at Shalom Lake in the Alexis First Nation, soccer at Manluk Industries field in Wetaskiwin and events at Enoch’s sand pits and elsewhere, the distances made it a challenge for events to start on time. Coordination was another hurdle, as was the uncharacteristically blistering heat.
However, what the Games lacked organizationally was more than made up for by a small army of tireless volunteers, who fed, watered, and transported hundreds of athletes, delegates and fans across the six First Nations around Edmonton (Enoch, Alexis & the 4 First Nations of Mascwacis: Louis Bull, Ermenskin, Samson and Montana Cree). And despite the lack of sleep by the mostly female indigenous Secretariat and organizing committees, the Games succeeded in getting everyone where they needed to be, when they needed to be there.
Being flexible, Whetu Rangihaeta from New Zealand said, was key to enjoying the events. It also allowed the Games to incorporate local additions from the communities, including the absolutely thrilling Indian Relay at the Panee Agrium, where a rider races across the track on one horse, only to disembark and jump on to the next one and again race around the course. The Relay is more common in Southern Alberta and the U.S. Midwest, which meant something new to see for the local community, indigenous and non-indigenous alike.
Each international team had its own impact on the Games. Paraguay brought a fierce determination to win, cruising to victory in all of its soccer games, while Panama was easily the fan favourite with the boisterous cheering of their 65 delegates. New Zealand won several medallions but fans hung around them eager to see them perform the famous Haka dance.
Being flexible also allowed a team of Syrian refugee youth to play a 30-minute friendly soccer game with Team Paraguay. The Syrian boys were also invited as honoured guests at the Enoch Arbor for that community’s annual powwow. Like all the other teams, they walked into an amazing environment with a rousing reception. What a great way to build bridges between newcomers and the indigenous community!
For me personally, this was a tremendously inspirational event, and one with significant lessons on being adaptable at a moment’s notice, cross-cultural communication, establishing relationships through protocol & celebration as well as flexible decision making. By the end of the day, hugs and high-fives were exchanged all around between new friends practicing old traditions, ensuring this event will live on for the thousands who participated or witnessed it.
*Sam Singh is a Strategic Planner with End Poverty Edmonton, who was seconded to the WIN games, which wrapped up this past weekend.