Let the games begin

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) kicked off in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) on July 16 with over 5,000 athletes from 756 Nations across North America of youths aged 13 to 19 years old, along with coaches and officials. The opening ceremonies at the Scotiabank Centre in downtown Halifax were enjoyed by a sold-out crowd. Mi’kmaq dancers performed to open the games. A sacred fire was lit as the opening ceremonies began and the fire burned in the heart of the cultural village. Firekeeper Clifford Capage says the fire calls to the ancestral spirits of the Mi’kmaq and the fire holds on to the positive force that is present. The fire is lit every morning and extinguished at night. A smudging ceremony was held in honour of traditional roots.

A Kwitn Asu’nmatultimk (canoe relay) led up to the games beginning at Malikiag (Acadia) at Gold River in the Chester Basin on May 2, travelling to L’Sitkuk (Bear River), to Kampalijek (Annapolis Valley), to Kluskap (Glooscap) at Hantsport, to Membertou (on Greenlink Trail), to Eskansoni, to Wagmatcook First Nation, to We’koqma’q at Sky River Trail, to Potlotek, to Paqtnkek (Afton), to We’kapikwitk (Millbrook), to Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie), and ending at Kjipuktuk at Queen’s Marque on Lower Water Street on July 7, celebrating and connecting Mi’kmaq communities throughout Nova Scotia. This is the “largest celebration of sport and culture in Canada since contact,” the NAIG 2023 website says.

The sacred fire was lit on Saturday, July 15 by the NAIG organizers, rekindling First Nations culture at the core of the games, as two elders called out for the ancestors to join them. Cultural demonstrations, performances of Indigenous artists, and a marketplace was available to spectators and participants. A morning powwow started each day. Educational exhibits in basket-weaving, wood carving, and the game of waltes was on display. One participant, 82-year-old Ernest Johnson, shared his teaching of the precious value of wood, demonstrating his art and sharing a tea made from the bark of certain species of poplar that acts as a headache remedy. Johnson “rescues” wood and reminds spectators of its important qualities. Wigwams and teepees were set up on the grounds for visitors to see, some half-constructed to demonstrate how these shelters were built. The marketplace was filled with colourful paintings and other works of art, clothing, jewelry to name a few.

The athletes competed in sixteen sports with three traditional sports of canoe/kayak, lacrosse, and 3D archery. The idea was born in the 1970s and came to life in 1990 in Edmonton, Alberta for the first games. George (Tex) Marshall of Eskasoni First Nation, president of the 2023 North American Indigenous Games, said they provide a safe and welcoming place for teens to play and excel. “Sport provides hope, it provides a future for anyone. It builds character and leadership skills,” Marshall said to Maritime Noon. The games provide an opportunity for celebrating culture with pride and to “realize the collective potential of our bodies, minds, spirit,” the organization says. The mission statement of the NAIG is to “improve the quality of life for Indigenous Peoples.” Inherent in the games is a focus on celebrating culture with a sense of pride and history. The games wrapped up on July 23. Halifax was to host the games in 2020 but COVID altered those plans. The committee feels in some ways it was a blessing, as the three-year postponement allowed them more time to focus on preparation, and people were excited to be back at it after the delay of the games.

The idea for the games came from a concern for the well-being of Indigenous youth and how to provide positive opportunities for them. The happy faces of the thousands of participants proves the strategy is working, one step in helping Indigenous youth overcome the challenges and obstacles in their paths. It was an exciting time for all involved, the colours, the togetherness, the connectedness to sport while embracing cultural traditions. It was a grand event. Fog and rain didn’t slow anyone down. We must remember we are all treaty people, and when one of us thrives, we all benefit.