Sport and culture celebrated in Denver North American Indigenous Games 2006.
The excitement of the thousands of spectators gathered for the ceremonies that would kick off the 2006 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in Denver intensified as the 7,000-plus athletes representing 31 delegations from across Canada and the United States streamed on to INVESCO Field on July 2.
As emcees Waneek Horn-Miller and Drew Lacapa welcomed each team into the 1.8-million sq. ft stadium, the crowd roared their appreciation as athletes proudly waved and shouted their team names with enthusiasm.
Quarter-sized rain drops fell on to the heads of the 10,000 Indigenous athletes and coaches and 45,000 volunteers and spectators, but the rain didn't seem to dampen the celebratory mood. Instead, it was as if everyone in the stadium soaked up the rain and used it to reenergize, which resulted in a full volume round of applause for the athletes, which positively left everyone with goose bumps of joy.
As the rain subsided, Chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Clement J. Frost took to the stage and welcomed everyone to the sixth games, which took place from July 2 to July 9.
"The Creator blessed us today with this moisture to wish us well," said Frost. "I hope you except this moisture to help you with the games to come. We thank you all for being here and we support you."
As a representative of one of the host sponsors for the games--the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribes pledged a combine total of $1.2 million as host sponsors of the games--Frost discussed the importance of NAIG to the young participants.
"You show that you are our future leaders just by being here," he said. "You are our wealth, you are our vision and you are our pride, always. I wish all of you well."
Before the opening ceremonies, spectators were entertained by a variety of Aboriginal performances. Visitors were treated to some of the local Denver talent, such as DJ Abel, DJ Tribal Touch and the Denver Native Break Dancers. Also, funny man Don Burnstick kept the crowd amused with his Native humor, focusing on First Nations people, their habits, likes and dislikes. Burnstick is a Cree from the Alexander First Nation located on the outskirts of Edmonton.
Also on the opening ceremony schedule was Red Power Squad. This hip hop group is based in Alberta, and states as a goal their hope to empower youth. Through their gripping performances and motivational speaking they address many issues, including gang lifestyle, dysfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and AIDS, life on the streets to life on the reserve, and the importance of education.
One of the most memorable cultural performances had to be from the Ute Mountain Ute Bear Dancers. Just as the cultural performance was being introduced, the sun began to peak as if to welcome them. The Bear Dance is a unique social dance that is meant as a celebration to welcome spring.
Rita King from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Kenny Frost, a Southern Ute Tribal member, demonstrated the dance. Both King and Frost have been dancing as partners for 40 years. Approximately 18 dancers took to the field and they positioned themselves in two lines with nine on either side. As the men began to play thick-ribbed sticks on a steel bench, the dancers took their partners and did a two-step back and forth. The Ute Bear Dance is one of the oldest dances that the tribe performs, usually in late May or early June.
"The bear start to wake up," said Frost.
In attendance for opening day was Willie Littlechild, also of Alberta, whose vision led to the first Indigenous games. Without that vision, athletes, such as Newell Lewey from Wabamaki, Maine, wouldn't have been able to showcase his track and field talents.
Team Maine was one of the smallest teams competing in the games with a total of 14 athletes participating in golf, basketball and track and field. Newell said the medals were not as significant as the whole experience of participating in the games themselves.
"I hope the athletes come out of this with a positive experience," said Lewey, the team's chef de mission. Lewey had a son who would also be competing in the track and field competitions.
"I hope they're competitive, but stressing that's not the important part. The important part is participation and the mingling with other people," he said.
Littlechild's dream for a North American Indigenous Games became a reality in 1990 with the first games held in Edmonton. Three years later in 1993, Prince Albert, Sask. hosted the second games. Littlechild's dream continued in 1995, when the games were held in Blaine, Minnesota. The 1997 NAIG was held in Victoria, B.C. The last time athletes participated in the games was in Winnipeg in 2002.
In 1977, Littlechild spoke of the games at the Annual Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Sweden.
Littlechild told Windspeaker that the idea to create the games came from personal experiences with sports and the impression that he was left with. He was a multi-sport athlete, though his favorite was baseball. He also competed in high-level hockey and swimming. He said he competed in 10 different other sports, but those three were the highlights of his sports career. As a young athlete, Littlechild won 10 Athlete of the Year awards.
"Each of those contributed to me, whether it was in business or in education," said the former Member of Parliament for Wetaskiwin. "All of my experiences I owe to sports, therefore I wanted other people to have that opportunity.
"I always tried to think the thought of what would have happened had I not participated in sports. It probably would have been negative," said Littlechild. "I would've been one of those terrible statistics that we here about all of the time."
Littlechild recounts a comment that he heard around the time of the second Indigenous games about Aboriginal people having the highest rate of suicide compared to other populations in the world.
"Three months before the games and three months after the games, there was not one suicide, not one suicide in any Indigenous communities in Canada that I heard of anyways," said Littlechild, the first treaty Indian from Alberta to obtain a law degree.
"I thought 'Wow, the games are giving our young people a hope that there is a better future, that they would choose life rather then a negative choice. So, it's experiences like that, I think, that are the real successes of the games."
Littlechild's vision for the games is for athletes, coaches and spectators to share in the multi-sport and culture celebration.
"To support each other in an event like this, I think, is very important and people go away with a feeling, a spirit, that I think keeps them going to face any kind of challenges," said Littlechild.
"It's not just the participation of athletes or of cultural participation, but it's just the inner feeling you get, the pride that you experience. I call it sometimes the winning spirit that we have in all of us, to be able to feel that and to share it with whomever we are with, whether it's family or community. The winning spirit, it's a feeling that it is good to be an Indigenous person and I think that's one of the deepest experiences that one can go away with. It keeps them going in life."
More to NAIG than just medals
Of course the teams participating in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) wanted to win as many medals as they could for their regions, but athletes, coaches and supporters say there is much more to the games than the hardware.
"I told the kids to go out there and have fun and build relationships with the other youth because that's what it's all about," said Duane Waukau, chef de mission for Team Wisconsin. "For sure we want to win the medal, but I want the kids to enjoy being here. Being at INVESCO Field, I'd say, is the number one experience because you're coming in with all of the Native youth in the country and that will be an awesome feeling to be part of."
Team Wisconsin has athletes competing in basketball, baseball, volleyball and athletics. This is Wisconsin's fourth time competing in the games. The baseball team took gold and two bronzes, the volleyball team served up a bronze medal and the basketball team dunked silver and two bronzes during the games held in Winnipeg in 2002.
"The kids are holding their own," said Waukau. "There should be some very good competition this year because there are a lot more U.S. teams, so I'm really looking forward to that."
The NAIG is a multi-sport competition for youth between the ages of 13 and 19 and adults 20 years and older.
Thirteen-year-old, Leona Cook, Woodland Cree from Saskatchewan, sees the advantages that the games provide. She has met a number of athletes from other regions that she says are very interesting. As one of the players with the most volleyball experience, Cook said her volleyball team had only three practices together before attending the games, however they won their first game against Kansas.
"We all thought that we wouldn't win because we were looking at the other girls and they looked good in practice," said Cook. "We were surprised that we won."
During the first day of basketball and volleyball competition at the Gold Crown Field House, Windspeaker caught up with Minnesota's basketball Coach Daniel Ninham. His midget boys team had just won their second game, but coach Ninham appeared calm and collected, as if expecting the win.
When asked if there was a specific team that he was maybe concerned about he said "Every team that we play against we're concerned about. It doesn't matter who it is."
He expected his team to do well, but said the games highlight more than just taking the medals home. "The main awareness of the Indigenous people all coming together is mostly important," he said.
"It was emotional and powerful in the stadium yesterday and it's emotional and powerful every time we come out here on the court," said Ninham. "In a sense, it's like our own little powwow. You have the game players here in the middle and then on the outside circle you have the spectators. So, it's just really invigorating to really participate in this capacity. I see us blending in with the other 30 teams that are here. We're all diverse but all multi-Indigenous."
Sixteen-year-old swimmer Bree Menge views the games only as a stepping stone to opportunities like obtaining a scholarship.
Willie Littlechild, the founder of NAIG, agreed that the games can be used as a way to further an athlete's goals.
"Yes, these games are a stepping stone for some who are wanting to go to higher games like the Pan-American Games or the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics," said Littlechild.
"However, for others, the games are also the highlight of their career. This to them is the Olympic games. They don't want to go to any other games. This Indigenous games to them is the highest level they want to aspire to, so, that's also very good because it acknowledges a feeling by our people that these are our games. These are our Olympics."
Editors note: As of press time July 12 the results of the games were not available.
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The North American Indigenous Games competition has been described as a big powwow. Certainly cultural dance had an important role to play in the celebration of the games in Denver on July 2 during opening ceremonies. Photos by Laura Stevens
By Laura Stevens
Windspeaker Staff Writer