By Peter Kakepetum Schultz
I’m sitting in front of my computer the morning after the closing ceremonies for the North American Indigenous Games, the largest sporting event in Canadian history, and the sadness has begun to set in.
This feeling of sadness is one shared by 6,700 athletes; their families, their supporters, and 3,757 volunteers who have just taken a step into history.
These people planned, coordinated, and participated in the largest North American Indigenous Games to take place since the games began in 1990.
The North American Games brought more than 6,000 youth to the city and this was a concern for the organizers of the games. These young people and their exemplary behavior have given a gift of long lasting pride to their families, communities, and ancestors.
Organizers successfully provided a forum for honoring First Nations youth. The sadness that came with the close of the N.A.I.G. is eased by new friendships, the sense of accomplishment, and the pride that resulted from this phenomenal gathering.
For the past ten days Winnipeg Manitoba has been host to the North American Indigenous Games for 2002. These games have demonstrated to the world the abilities of First Nation people from across Turtle Island.
These capabilities were clearly not limited to athletic abilities.
Strength came from the more recognized older role models coming together with youth. Many skills and talents were incorporated into the planning and coordination of this event. For ten days Winnipeg was the beating heart of the great medicine wheel – Mother Earth.
The meaning of opening ceremonies
The opening ceremonies were performed on Sunday July 28, 2002.
As I sat in the Winnipeg stadium, which was filled to capacity, I was made clearly aware of what the games meant.
The opening ceremonies were not just an exercise in protocol. Winnipeg Stadium became a teaching lodge. APTN became the eyes of the world and the audience was introduced to the culture, history, and humanity that is the essence of First Nations people.
Alex Nelson from British Columbia, chairperson for N.A.I.G., commented that Winnipeg had welcomed their visitors and the city had now been “transformed into a house of learning.”
Importance of these games is the sense of pride that they are instilling in all people. The honor that was bestowed upon youth was transformed into a gift that they were then able to give back to their families and relations.
The speeches by dignitaries and honored guests echoed the themes that First Nation people have used to raise their children for generations: Have fun, be proud, play hard, and stay safe.
That is the way to survive. Humor was restored to this dignified ceremony that was filled with protocol by the National Chief Mathew Coon Come. Athletes began a wave in the stadium during the speech by Peter M. Liba ( Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba).
Mr. Coon Come stood and raised his arms to carry the wave across the political stage. This action injected a true First Nation quality of humor into the circumstance. It also focused people upon the fact that these games truly were a First Nations’ event.
One of the most emotionally rewarding occurrences of the night, for me and many people that I spoke to, was the raising of the flag that marked the games officially opened.
The N.A.I.G. flag was passed from the original men that had carried the torch of the Pan American Games to the Winnipeg Stadium over thirty years ago. The flag was passed to the Tommy Prince Cadets.
These men who were referred to as the Frontrunners had endured a long difficult journey and were ultimately served the serious injustice of not being allowed to carry the torch into the stadium. This glory was handed to someone else.
It was done by someone less deserving of the honor that was associated with this act. The carrying in and passing of the flag at the 2002 ceremonies to the Cadets (who are named after one of Canada’s most decorated war heroes) was a very powerful moment.
Rising flag; growing pride
Watching the flag rise stirred a feeling within those present that a fortress had been reclaimed. Dignity was restored to the Frontrunners and to all First Nations people. It was with great pride that we watched this great wrong finally being corrected.
As with all injustice the undoing of that past wrongful act does not mean that what occurred should be forgotten but it does allow people to move forward in a positive way. This was a spectacular healing moment for those in attendance.
Throughout the games a cultural village was established at The Forks. The cultural village was the focal point for many of the out of town guests. This Winnipeg landmark is historically significant as a place where First Nation people have met for thousands of years. It is located at the point where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet.
At the exact point where the two rivers meet is an island named Spirit Island. Spirit Island became the center of a wheel. From this center point the North American Indigenous Games have provided a spiritual center. On Spirit Island the sweat lodges are located.
Sweat Ceremonies took place every night and were open to anyone who wished to attend them. A Sacred Fire burned for the entire ten days. This is also where the Sacred Bundle of the N.A.I.G., which is carried by Ray Tootoosis of Hobema First Nation in Alberta, resided for the duration of the games.
Musical expression was highlighted by the incredible line up of performers like Susan Aglukark’s performance at the opening ceremonies. Theme nights at the cultural village allowed the showcasing of more localized and fast rising stars like WarParty a rap group from Alberta ( a particular favorite of my grandson, James ), Breach of Trust from Saskatchewan, Brothers of Different Mothers from Vancouver, and more established artists like Tom Jackson, C-Weed, and George Leach.
The cultural village presented a variety of activities like Music, Pow-Wow dancing and singing demonstrations, storytelling, an Elders tent, and many Metis cultural demonstrations and presentations.
What was obvious when you entered the village was the vitality of the youth who were central in all of the sporting events. New York athletes were particularly exuberant and demonstrative when they captured a medal. They provided the crowd with entertaining moments when they ran through the crowd chanting their victories for all to hear.
Thousands of strong and healthy children, young women, and young men were everywhere. The sense of this being one big family was clear.
Despite the fact that many of the people attending the North American Indigenous Games have never met each other before that was not the way it felt as you walked through the crowd.
The cultural village demonstrated the many positive aspects of the Red Nations’ culture. Kinship and diversity existed in this village. Representatives of the 200 Indigenous languages came together here and lived in harmony for ten days.
Memories to cherish
People will be taking this instilled pride home. They will be carrying positive memories of the games with them on their journey through life.
One example of this is Wade Kaye who traveled from a tiny community called Old Crow First Nation in the Yukon. This young athlete came to represent his fly in community located one hour North of Dawson by plane.
The community has a population of 300 and Wade is taking home 2 bronze medals that he won in the track and field competitions. He and his community are winners through his dedication and hard work.
As one speaker commented at the closing ceremony “We are healing and the world has begun to heal with us.”
This is the fundamental benefit of why the N.A.I.G. are taking place and why they are growing in size each time they occur. They demonstrate the strength and vitality of First Nations people.
The time has come for the world to walk to a new viewpoint on the medicine wheel journey and to see First Nation people for what they are – strong, proud, survivors.
The most profound integrity was demonstrated by a member of Team Saskatchewan. Alexis Beatty from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan was the only wrestler to arrive in her weight category.
For this reason the gold medal was automatically awarded to her.
She showed us all the meaning of honor and integrity when she declined the medal and later said, ” I did nothing to earn it…so I didn’t take it.”
Miss Beatty provided us all with a shining example of what we can be if we make choices carefully: proud of ourselves. All the athletes came away from this experience as winners. All of the world has benefited because First Nations people and certainly Alexis Beatty have given us a demonstration that life is the greatest teacher.