'We have so much to offer': World Indigenous Games comes to Alberta this summer

As the driving force behind the World Indigenous Nations Games, having them on the territory where he learned about his culture's sporting traditions has special meaning for Wilton Littlechild. 

Littlechild, the Treaty 6 Grand Chief, has advocated for four decades to have an event that celebrates the athleticism of Indigenous peoples through the games he grew up playing in Ermineskin Cree Nation south of Edmonton.

Approximately 4,000 competitors from 34 countries — representing an even higher number of nations within those states' borders — are expected in the Edmonton area from July 2 to 9 as Enoch Cree Nation hosts the second-ever iteration of the event. 

For Littlechild, a champion swimmer, the chance to participate, even at 73 years old, is tempting. 

"It would be living my own dream in a sense," said Littlechild, who's not ruling out the opportunity just yet. 

He swam at the inaugural World Indigenous Nations Games in Palmos, Brazil just two years ago. 

But as the ambassador to the 2017 event, Littlechild's schedule will be jam-packed. 

With two-and-a-half months to go, he and the other organizers are working tirelessly to capture the spirit of reconciliation that Canada has been working to promote for nearly a decade. 

"We have a new opportunity. Yes, we need to look back at that sad, sometimes mostly unknown history of Canada in terms of what was not good, what was wrong, the harm that was done," Littlechild said.

"At the same time, if we're going to get past that, then we're going to need to be able to celebrate something.

"Traditional games and sports have that power to do that and bring people together."

Final preparations

There is still much work to be done, but Littlechild is confident that organizers will be able to overcome last-minute challenges — including a budgetary shortfall. 

Putting on "a good set of games" requires $10 million to $25 million, he said. They are still working toward the lower end of that amount. 

Organizers have asked various levels of government, Indigenous organizations and corporate sponsors to help to make up the difference. 

While international delegations are responsible for getting to Edmonton, organizers want to ensure they're taken care of once they arrive. 

They'll be staying and training at the University of Alberta but will still need to be fed and transported to the events, which will take place at Enoch and Ermineskin Cree Nations. 

The reserves have an idea of what to expect, Littlechild said. The regional predecessor to the World Indigenous Nations Games was first held in 1971 at Enoch.

Twenty years later, the central Alberta First Nation, home today to about 2,000 people, hosted the inaugural North American Indigenous Games.

"In terms of experience in hosting that calibre of games, that level of participation, we know we have the experience," Littlechild said. 

But another complicating factor is getting members of fly-in communities, particularly in northern Ontario and Quebec, to Edmonton. 

While the United Nations Development Program assisted isolated communities in to Brazil travel to the 2015 games, Canada, defined as a developed country, isn't entitled to that same support. 

"There's a bit of a discriminatory practice, I think, for Indigenous peoples from developed countries," Littlechild said.

"I'm saddened in a way that the recognition of Canada, while it is very good as a developed country, actually excludes us from assistance in other ways."

Including people, especially youth, from remote reserves in the Games is a big part of the picture. 

"When we look at the challenges we have with our youth … we hear many times that they don't feel they belong anywhere, nobody supports them," he said.

"We try to promote a celebration of life so that youth will feel and notice they have something to be proud of in our culture, in our games."

Focus on traditional Indigenous events 

The World Indigenous Nations Games are structured similarly to the Olympics but mix contemporary sports with traditional Indigenous events. 

Similar to the Olympics, nations will compete in sports like soccer. They'll compete in other events such as swimming and running, but the events will focus on connecting with the environment. 

Athletes will swim in a river and will participate in sacred runs.

There will also be spear throw, tug of strength and log races, where teams have to lift and carry logs that weigh hundreds of pounds over a finish line. 

When it comes to the equipment for activities such as canoeing and archery, there are few restrictions, but one major twist: competitors can't just go out and buy it.  

"Some use very long arrows. Some have a regular kind of length of an arrow," Littlechild said, referring to the tools of different archers.

"When you look at the Mongolians for example, Indigenous peoples from Mongolia, they're very, very good archers, as are all the jungle tribes in South America because they do it to this day as a way of life."  

In Brazil, Littlechild said a highlight was the unique games played by the various delegations, which were showcased in the evenings. 

It's something organizers are keeping in the schedule.

For example, Crow Nation in Montana will be demonstrating Indian horse relay racing — where the jockeys ride bareback. 

"These games will not likely have been seen by, I daresay, anyone in Edmonton. They're only played in Indigenous communities," Littlechild said. 

"We have so much to offer from North America, even from Treaty 6, 7 and 8 alone, in terms of our games that people aren't really familiar with."

Fostering 'good relations'

The World Indigenous Nations Games are about more than just sports. 

Littlechild, a commissioner on Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools and a contributor to the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, sees them as an opportunity to "live out reconciliation."

Littlechild wants non-Indigenous peoples, especially in the Edmonton area, to know that they are welcome at the World Indigenous Nations Games.

From the stands as spectators, they can take in sporting events or the ongoing cultural celebration at Enoch's powwow grounds.

As a legacy project, the community is constructing one of the largest powwow arbours in the country. 

In the afternoons on game days, there will be conferences on global issues affecting Indigenous peoples, ranging from food security to human rights to business.

Littlechild said non-Indigenous peoples are encouraged to attend as well. 

"Reconciliation, I think, is about having good relations," he said. "Helping each other stage these games, I think we would find things about each other that would be positive."

For those who want to assist, Littlechild said organizers are still looking for volunteers for interpretation, hosting dignitaries, transportation and food. 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell