‘It’s beautiful when I get to practice both’: How Indigenous cultures and sports overlap

Heading back to the dugout at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), 16 year-old competitive youth softball player Hunter Lang noticed something she had never seen before. The other team’s pitcher had no protective face mask.

“I can’t imagine being a pitcher and not wearing a face mask at our age,” said Lang. “The ball flies off of those bats, and it’s coming fast. If you get hit in the face, it’s gonna do some damage or knock out some teeth.”

It had taken years for Lang to get over her fear of the ball when she first started playing softball, yet there stood a pitcher with her face exposed. Lang looked over to the opposition’s bench. She couldn’t spot a single face mask. In the heat of the game, Lang grabbed her own mask from the dugout and ran out to the pitcher.

Growing up as urban Indigenous in Port Moody, Lang had little exposure to her Indigenous culture. She is fifth-generation Chinese and part of the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation. When she was playing on Team BC at NAIG, she noticed a difference in the resources her team had compared to rural teams, like the pitcher’s. Before competing at NAIG, Lang had only played in mainstream sports, the sports system most Canadians participate in.

This was her first experience in the Indigenous sports stream.

Lang said competing at NAIG was an “eye-opening experience,” and the Games kick-started her quest to find her Indigenous identity. Her father and uncle had always taught her how to say words in their language, calling it “our language,” but had never known its name. Lang wanted to know the name of the language, the history of her people and the cultural practices of her ancestors.

“You didn’t know what you were missing. You didn’t even know you were missing anything,” said Lang. “Once you start [to learn the culture] a little bit, it’s hard to stop the curiosity. You want to reclaim it because you feel like this existed in my family, and it’s been taken away.”

The now fourth-year student pivoted from wanting to study science to pursuing a political science degree and is taking as many First Nations and Indigenous studies courses as possible.

Several Indigenous athletes in the UBC community have found that sport has helped them make an initial connection or reconnect with their Indigenous identity. They’ve noticed ways in which the sporting community reminds them of their own heritage and has allowed them to give back.

Fifth-year biology student Garnet Currie — who, like Lang, grew up only participating in the mainstream sports system — also attended the 2017 NAIG, but as a swimmer. Currie is Métis and said attending NAIG was a big cultural experience.

“When we weren’t swimming, they had us doing a whole bunch of very social events or meeting new people,” he said. “The opening games were very, very cool … just seeing how big of a community [was there] because they had the opening ceremonies at a football field, and it was full.”

Currie said events like NAIG are important since they make competing in sports tangible for Indigenous youth.

Alana Cook is also working toward promoting sport for Indigenous youth through her self-defence program, Walking Like Warriors. Cook is a Métis professional MMA fighter and an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Kinesiology, teaching a course on Indigenous sport in settler Canada.

Cook wants to be a role model for young Métis women. “I want to be the first Métis woman in a major fighting organization. I think it’s a privilege and it’s a big responsibility. It’s something I hope that I can live up to,” she said.

When Cook weighs in for her fights, she wears red dress earrings in solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She tries to use her sport as a platform to raise awareness.

“I can see so many similarities between my culture and martial arts, and I think it’s beautiful when I get to practice both,” said Cook, specifically noting her process of getting ready for a fight is similar to her ancestors’ preparation for battle.

Two-time ultimate frisbee world champion Chief Lara Mussell Savage of Skwah First Nation agreed that many aspects of sport match Indigenous culture. In particular, she said ultimate aligns with her Indigenous teaching principles. At the heart of ultimate is the concept of the Spirit of the Game, which places the responsibility of honour and fair gameplay on every player.

“When the game ends, and you’re having a spirit huddle, and you’re reflecting on what you’re taking away from today’s game or today’s practice, I think [those] are fantastic teachings and parallel really nicely with a lot of Indigenous teachings.”

Mussell Savage grew up in Vancouver and the Skwah First Nation reserve in Chilliwack. She was introduced to ultimate in high school and played for UBC’s team for five years.

After graduation, she worked in mainstream sports. Through her work at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Mussell Savage was introduced to the Indigenous sports stream and she began working with the Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity & Recreation Council (ISPARC), which manages Team BC at NAIG.

For fourth-year psychology student Trinity Stephens, playing sports within the mainstream system still helped her connect deeper to her Métis culture. Stephens is Black, with family from Jamaica, and Indigenous. She spent most of her childhood in Wasaga Beach, Ontario and taught herself everything her culture had to offer.

Like Cook and Mussell Savage, Stephens has noticed ways in which sport reminds her of some Indigenous cultures. In high school, Stephens joined a club volleyball team and instantly clicked with her teammates.

“The connectedness that we had in the team kind of felt like the connectedness of a lot of collectivistic cultures of my own,” she said. “It was just translated within a sport.”

At UBC, Stephens still plays volleyball recreationally and has continued to learn more about Indigenous culture through Indigenous Student Advising and speaking with professors and Indigenous elders.

Stephens believes teams, clubs and organizations should have at least one position reserved for diverse player recruitment.

“I know personally, from seeing people who play and grew up on reserves … they have such amazing skills, but if people don’t go and see them and try to recruit them, they’re never gonna have that opportunity,” she said.

Of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, 5 are dedicated to sport and reconciliation. Mussell Savage said the five calls to action are great teaching tools.

The calls reinforce ISPARC’s goal of “trying to maximize opportunities for Indigenous participants in sport and helping the sport system create more safe and welcoming environments to increase access and reduce barriers for Indigenous participants,” according to Mussell Savage.

Sport has connected these athletes deeper to their culture and has inspired them to give back to their communities.

Cook gives back through her UBC course and self-defence lessons. “This community has given me so much, I don’t want to just keep taking,” she said. “I want to give back. I want to empower the youth. I want to take care of the women. I want to take care of my family.”

Mussell Savage returned to the reserve she grew up on and, after nine years of serving on the council, was elected chief. She ensures sport and health are emphasized in her community.

After teaching herself the traditions of her culture, Stephens now teaches children those same lessons, like learning about medicine wheels and building inukshuks.

When Lang was a teenager, she remembers thinking her blood quantum affected her identity because she has more Chinese ancestry than Indigenous. Attending NAIG and getting to compete with and against other Indigenous athletes helped Lang facilitate a closer connection to her heritage. Now, she tries to help others have the same experience.

Lang works with Hope and Health, an organization that engages Indigenous youth in sport, and sits on the Indigenous Long-Term Participant Development Committee for Softball BC, promoting NAIG through school districts, Indigenous communities and softball associations to inspire the next generation of Indigenous athletes.

“Sports are really important to me. I think they give a lot to people, whether it’s your life lessons or life skills, competitively or if it’s just living that active health style,” said Lang. “We need to make it easy and accessible and get it out there for both rural and urban Indigenous youth.”