2008 North American Indigenous Games: “We’re Still Here!”

By Myles Zacharias

It is difficult to determine exactly what makes a great event, a great speaker, or a great community. But if any of them happen in history you simply know it when you see it. All three came together on August 3rd 2008 at the North American Indigenous Games Opening Ceremonies. Steven Point blew the cap off the bubbling energy of at least ten thousand people as he shouted “We’re Still Here!” And he followed it all with a “Wahey!” Point said he had never seen so many brothers and sisters in one place at the same time. He said, “People are driving by, wondering what’s going on in Indian country! Woah!” The Games had begun.

It was a hot and sunny week in the Cowichan Valley from the 3rd to the 10th of August. Temperatures rose to thirty degrees, sending thousands to the Valley’s crystal clear Cowichan River for a swim and a snorkel, others to the shade with exhaustion, and at least one to the hospital with heat stroke. Organizers received appreciation for having plenty of portable tents and water available, but the sun remained a formidable challenge regardless. The Citizen’s Kevin Rothbauer reported that during the 2006 N.A.I.G. in Denver an official was compelled to tell a coach mid-game to hydrate her players, forcing her to go and buy the necessary supplies herself at the grocery. Such scenes were thankfully avoided this year in the Warmland. Outside Cowichan Secondary School, where basketball games were held all day for the week, one could find the most successful man-made oasis from the sun. Athletes received hand massages and fresh water under a deep shadow cast by a thick white tent.

The competition was exciting from the sidelines. The subtle things that happen cannot be captured in points. For example, the way that the entire boys British Columbia basketball team lined up and shook the hands of each disqualified player who had fouled out, or the way Patricia Williams flipped her canoe before the midget girl’s race began, but paddled strongly through an already lost race.

Eastern Door and the North won the John Fletcher Spirit Award for teamwork, sportsmanship, and for representing the overall spirit of the games. Dave Canadian, representing Saskatchewan, accepted the award and declared that Eastern Door and the North “takes its hats off” (admittedly an impossible phrase grammatically, which is probably why he said it three times, and differently each time) to all competitors and to all those who came and to cheer and care. He said that “Win, lose, or draw, it’s all about sportsmanship.”

Saskatchewan won the Overall Team Title Award for the most points. In terms of medals, Saskatchewan left with 243 (94 gold, 81 silver, 68 bronze). British Columbia was second place for overall points with 114 medals (47 gold, 34 silver, 32 bronze).

In terms of the quality of actual competition at the NAIG, what are people saying? David Rabino, who has been rifle shooting since the 1997 games, says that the competition is getting better organized and tougher since he began. Alissa Johnson is a runner for team Manitoba. She has a fire in her eyes when talking about running at the Olympics, and is currently on her way to India for the Commonwealth Youth Games. She says it would be a tough call whether she would compete at these games or at a national competition level.

APTN broke a story about 36 Alberta athletes who came all the way to the Cowichan Valley but were unable to participate because the athletes’ registration deadlines were not met by the Alberta administration in charge. It brought forth interesting emotions and questions for the athletes, for the Cowichan 2008 Games organizers, and for Amberta’s mission staff. For the sitting athletes, the emotions were fairly simple: frustration over wanting to compete in competition with peers but being stopped by bureaucracy. For the 2008 Games organizers like Alec Johnson, the decision is about the huge responsibilities necessary in order to deliver a high quality, major international Games in an efficient and safe manner. “The host society has got to know who’s coming to town,” he said. The Alberta mission staff, with Randy Metchuez as their composed representative, apologized in an interview to parents, chief and councils, Metis leadership, and friendship centers. He recognized the young athletes as the biggest losers in the mess. The debate continues.

It cannot be debated, however, that Derek Miller stole the show on the 7th as the moon rose in the sky. It was a breath of fresh air to see an unpretentious performer not interested in using classic tactics to capture the attention of his audience. Mr. Miller could be found on stage setting up his own equipment, providing something like an intermission show himself, chatting with fans that came to the stage, and tuning his guitar by ripping on it at performance volume. Before you knew it, he was off into his set and the band was with him at every turn, which is saying a lot. I’ve never heard it mentioned that this guy can really play the guitar, but this guy can really play the guitar, and his dirty blues tracks brought in the night more quickly than usual.

Closing night on the 9th was taken by Tanya Tagaq. This beautiful Inuk throat singer eerily drew the crowd into her sphere, or moved herself outwards into the minds of the crowd to capture them; it was not clear. Whatever happened, it was an awe-inspiring event for someone unfamiliar with the magic of Inuk throat singing.

Finally, the history that moved all week in the Warm Land began its final movement into the closing afternoon of August 10th 2008. Quietly it filled the space beside the river where the Closing Ceremonies would try to bottle some of this history and give it back to everyone who contributed. But before the ceremonies began, the smell of something delicious rose from the cultural village and drove this reporter nearly insane with hunger. I was not alone, I discovered. People all around me already seemed to have already realized that one can best move history on a well cared for belly.

Now, adversity struck one final time at the Smokie van when the woman behind the counter said they forgot all the Smokies that morning; she said someone’s dad would bring them soon.

I was ready to wait for someone’s dad but then I realized something and smiled. I looked immediately to my left. All week I had avoided the “Wild Sockeye Salmon Burger,” and finally my time had come.

The cook saw me move in his direction and smiled, too. He was pushing a gorgeous bright red salmon fillet with my name on it into the fryer. And so, with my Sockeye burger in hand, I went down to the shore to watch the tents being taken down and to watch the many swimmers take their final dip in the fresh and cool Cowichan River.