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Connecting Culture, Community and Competition: Reflections on the North American Indigenous Games 

by Andrea Carey

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) are an Indigenous multi-sport games that brings together athletes and teams from across Turtle Island. NAIG typically takes place every three years and started in 1990 on Treaty 6 in Edmonton, Alberta.

The 10th North American Indigenous Games was hosted with competitions in 16 sports within 21 venues across Kjipuktuk (Halifax) on July 16-23 and brought together more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and team staff from 756+ Indigenous Nations celebrating, sharing and reconnecting through sport and culture with the help of 3,000 volunteers.

The unique and very special components of NAIG that make it stand apart from other games experiences are the ways that culture is woven into every aspect of the games. Opening and closing ceremonies features beautiful song, dance, drumming and teachings woven together in ways that feed your soul. Every venue and accommodation offers spaces for cultural, spiritual and holistic grounding and in Kjipuktuk these were called Brave Spaces and Smudge Spaces, and they featured the four traditional medicines (tabacco, sweetgrass, sage and cedar); as well as a range of activities to support participants to connect to their culture or just to find some space.  The teams who come from across Turtle Island bring their culture with them and are encouraged to showcase it in beautiful and very public ways – from choice of what they wear to ceremonies; to song and dance that is shared during competition; gifting to those who you meet along the way; extended families travelling from near and far to support the athletes; a cultural village featuring Indigenous artisans and creators as well as teachings of culture and stage performances from many of the unique Indigenous performers; and the roles that Elders play across the games to support the teams and participants in truly special ways.

Major games all bring together so many beautiful parts of our shared humanity, they are an opportunity to showcase both the talents of the athletes who are part of them but also the awareness and teaching about cultures and societal issues. NAIG stands out though, it is a celebration of Indigenous cultures – cultures which we know were nearly erased, and these games are a resistance and a platform to showcase the community, reciprocity and connection that has been a key strength of Indigenous ways of being but also to teach about the beautiful cultures from the many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.

As a non-Indigenous person, I was incredibly honored to be part of Team BC’s mission staff for these games. Supporting the over 500 athletes and coaches who travelled across the country to take part in these games, it both felt like a huge responsibility but also an incredible gift to experience NAIG and to be in community with Team BC. The mission staff was a family and each person was a valued family member, and we each cared for each other in really lovely ways. We faced many challenging situations in the 8 days we were at games but through the Elder and cultural supports, it felt like a community of care that was connected in how we moved forward together.

The richness of learnings and relationships that were built over those few days together will be with each of us for the rest of our lives and I am so incredibly grateful for the learnings, memories and community that I was gifted through this experience.