Siksika Nation students kickboxing their way to improved mental health

Tawny Big Bull, left, demonstrates a kickboxing drill to students. (David Mercer/CBC - image credit)
Tawny Big Bull, left, demonstrates a kickboxing drill to students. (David Mercer/CBC - image credit)

After a quick warmup, students at Many Guns Boxing and Fitness strap on their boxing gloves and their shin guards.

Forming a circle around their instructor, Tawny Big Bull, they await their first instruction.

"You're going to jump into your stance," he says, lifting his fists beneath his chin. "You're going to throw a jab-cross."

Students partner up and begin the combination, smiles on their faces, some giggles when they forget their footwork. Their breath picks up as they move around the room, punching, kicking and blocking.

The class has become a regular scene on Siksika Nation, about 100 kilometres east of Calgary.

Participating students from the Siksika Outreach School, which offers individualized supports to at-risk youth, bus over to the fitness facility every weekday for one hour to take part in a kickboxing class. About 18 students are currently enrolled.

"When you come here, sometimes some people would be sad or angry," said Shyles Three Eagles, who's taken part in the classes for about four months.

"When they come here, they have the option to let that all out with the kickboxing. And by the time they leave, they usually are a lot better in their mental health than when they arrived."

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

Improving mental health was the original goal of the program, said Bruce Dobbin, principal of the school. But it's done much more. It's helped with confidence, motivation and even school participation.

Some students' school attendance has gone from 50 to 90 per cent, he said.

"They're learning that self-discipline and just setting goals, and they're learning it transfers to not just sports or kickboxing, it can easily transfer to their own lives and their own barriers and challenges and schoolwork," he said.

"They feel like they're actively supporting their own mental health. And that, to me, is a big deal."

'A multifaceted approach'

The program was developed in partnership with Dr. Quintina Bearchief-Adolpho, a registered psychologist and mental health team lead at Siksika Health Services.

She started the gym — named after a local boxing phenom — in August of 2021 to help the wider community improve their mental health.

"Fitness programs like yoga, martial arts, boxing, dance, those fitness programs actually help individuals heal those different parts of the brain that have been impacted by trauma," she said.

"We do have trauma here. I don't know one person on the nation that isn't impacted directly or indirectly or intergenerationally."

There's a recreational centre on Siksika Nation, but Bearchief-Adolpho says their facility's classes are looking beyond physical wellness, which makes them unique.

They run several classes, ranging from yoga to boxing to men's and women's fitness, with about 200 people using the facilities each week.

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

In her own practice, Bearchief-Adolpho says she's seen some people who've experienced trauma respond better to fitness programs than to traditional talk therapy. Eventually, she'd like to open a full healing centre to embrace other forms of treatment, like meditation or massage.

"We're using a multifaceted approach because trauma can't be healed by just using one approach. We have to incorporate all these different approaches that heals the body, heals the mind and heals the spirit."

Bearchief-Adolpho approached several schools in the area to see if they'd be interested in enrolling their students in the programs.

After three years of COVID-19, she thought they could benefit from their offerings, too.

'It's really heartwarming'

So far, it's been a success.

Yasleen Delorme, a student at Siksika Outreach School, started taking the kickboxing classes in September. She says on top of learning self-defence, the class is allowing her to bring more excitement, happiness and focus to her schoolwork.

"It's been helping. It helps more than I expected it to," she said.

Several students in the class also remarked on how the daily movement has helped to improve their self-image.

"I have more confidence in my physical health, appearance and mentally, I can deal with difficult situations when life gets harder," said Tristan McMaster. "It helps me navigate through life more easily, and it's a hobby."

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

And as the drills at the gym continue, Big Bull can see the improvements in his students as well.

They come into the studio shy and unsure, he says, but as they progress, he sees their personalities shine.

"I get to see and talk to them and observe from an outside perspective and see how their personal lives are changing for the better," he said.

"Seeing them make the transition and make the changes and overcome all the adversities that they have to overcome, it's really heartwarming for me and it's one of the reasons why I do it. In fact, it's the only reason I do it."