'When you pick up your stick, you're picking up history': B.C. girls get ready for lacrosse action at NAIG

No sport is more deeply engrained in the culture and tradition of Indigenous people than lacrosse, an elder from B.C.'s Kwantlen First Nation says.

Lekeyten, the elder, says it even lives in the stone and ground of the Indigenous communities that play it.

"When you pick up your stick, you're picking up history," says Lekeyten.

The sport is approaching an important milestone at the upcoming North American Indigenous Games, with women's box lacrosse, or indoor lacrosse teams, being allowed to participate after 25 years. This year's event is being held in Toronto from July 16 to 23.

B.C. is among the Canadian provinces and territories fielding a team. Several U.S. states will also be represented.

The games will showcase Indigenous athletes from across Canada and the U.S., with this summer's event in Toronto expected to involve more than 5,000 athletes.

Reconciliation will be front and centre at NAIG, which chose Team 88 for its theme. The theme references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 88th call to action, which directs Canada to support Indigenous sports.

To mark the call to action, the City of Toronto declared tomorrow — which marks 88 days before the games kick off — as 'Team 88 Day,' with celebrations at Nathan Phillips Square in the city's downtown.

​The games will be livestreamed on cbc.ca.

History and tradition

Twenty girls from Team B.C.'s under-19 women's box lacrosse team, along with their families, gathered with Lekeyten before their first practice in Langley, B.C., where he emphasized that the deep connections between lacrosse and Indigenous heritage are just as important as running drills.

"There was a big stone plate between Chehalis and Harrison Hot Springs, along the Chehalis River [in southwestern B.C.], where people would gather and play lacrosse," Lekeyten said before their first practice, as he told the girls a story his father had passed down to him.

"They would compete for weeks. They would all bring food, they would all feed each other."

He reiterated to the girls that it is an honour to play lacrosse, and how much Indigenous communities value the sport.

"Now Chehalis people look at that rock as a sacred rock, and they don't let anyone up there because it's looked after as history."

The team B.C. is sending to compete is made up from Indigenous women from all across the province.

A family affair

Stories similar to Lekeyten's are echoed throughout Indigenous communities across Canada and the U.S., where lacrosse is deeply rooted in family and tradition. It is a sport most of the athletes on Team B.C. have inherited from their parents.

For people like athlete Ainsley Allan and her mother, Tara White, from Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island, lacrosse has deep family roots.

"My father's name is Timothy White, and he passed away when he was 18. I was two years old. For the past 36 years, my family has hosted the Tim White Memorial Lacrosse Tournament and I have basically grown up in an arena," said White.

Allan has been playing lacrosse for eight years and White says opportunities like the Indigenous Games will allow her daughter to meet not only other girls, but other Indigenous girls.

"She's never been able to play with Inuit, Métis and other Aboriginal girls and to learn other cultures and heritages that are similar to hers. I'm really proud of her for that," said White.

Like most parents of competitive athletes, White tries to pass on her skills and coach her daughter whenever she can, but it can be a challenge.

"She will not listen to me. She says, 'You're not my coach, Mom, please just leave me alone.' I want her to listen and get the coaching she needs to be a better player."

A significant step

For some of the girls on Team B.C., this is the first opportunity they've had to play on an all-girls team because lacrosse has always been a male-dominated sport.

It's aggressive with a lot of checking and hitting. The team's coach, Savannah Smith, says with a lack of girls' leagues, some girls quit once puberty hits because the boys are simply too big.

Danya Shima's daughter Mattea plays on Team B.C., and Danya herself grew up loving lacrosse.

"I had three daughters, and I never in a million years imagined, even as they were growing up and getting older, that lacrosse would be a sport for them because it was just not an option," she said.

"But just recently, my whole world changed when girls teams like this started sprouting up."

Team B.C.'s first practice as a team was high energy, and the girls weren't afraid to hit each other.

Métis athlete Sophie Scobie said she uses lacrosse as an outlet.

"I like the people who come out to play and I love the aggression and intensity of the sport."

It's not all about bringing home gold

Emotions and traditions aside, hopes are high for the team.

"I'm not going to lie, I really hope to see gold at the end of the games," said Cherlyn Billy, the team's manager.

"But in the end, it's not about winning, it's about playing the sport so well that, at the end of the day, people respect the fact that you were there and you never stopped playing. That you had that same passion you started with at the end as well."