Thompson Okanagan Indigenous athletes on the Team BC U19 women’s box lacrosse team are training for the upcoming North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), an important cultural and athletic feat in their lives.
The games are taking place in Halifax this July and six players from the BC Interior are on the team this time around, including Lila Mae Nicholas and Rayann Squakin from Penticton, Eva Williams from Vernon, Cloe Etienne and Sydney Fraser from Kamloops and Alaura Marsden-Blackface from Cawston.
BC Interior Female Lacrosse Coordinator Penni King said she started in Penticton with the Penticton Minor Lacrosse Association in 2005 and stepped in to build a female program that is the first of its kind in the Thompson Okanagan in 2018.
"It's been growing for the last five years," she said. "So the fact that we have local girls who literally some of them have just picked up the stick within the last few years and are now making provincial teams, is absolutely stunning."
The players who are on the BC team train not only in their local divisions but will also group up within the Lower Mainland with the provincial team head coach Savanna Smith.
"When we do our training get-togethers, we try to work it around when the girls have tournaments or when they're going to be down in the Lower Mainland because we do have girls from Vancouver Island, as well as Kamloops area, Vernon and Penticton," Smith said.
"Their confidence has grown, their stick skills have grown so you can tell that they're really putting in the time and passion into the sport because it can be quite daunting. Especially if you're a 15-year-old playing against girls who've been playing since they were six or seven years old."
The 10th annual games will be held from July 15-23, 2023 in Nova Scotia in 16 sports within 21 venues across Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth and Millbrook First Nation.
NAIG 2023 will bring together more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and team sta? from more than 756 Indigenous Nations across North America and is a time for celebrating, sharing and reconnecting through sport and culture.
"I had the privilege of getting to coach the first ever indigenous female U19 team for the 2017 North American Indigenous Games," Smith added.
This year, Smith said the players’ motto is “In honour of CB,” for Cherlyn Billy, their former head coach who was also known for her efforts to grow women’s lacrosse across the province.
Billy unexpectedly passed away in December.
"It's been really hard for a lot of the girls and what they decided is to dedicate these games to her and everything that she had done for [them]," Smith said.
The girls are hoping to bring a medal home for Billy too.
At the games, there are three traditional Indigenous sports including Canoe/Kayak, Lacrosse, and 3D Archery. The three traditional sports will have a special opening ceremony to begin each event.
"Lacrosse was a gift given to Indigenous people from the Creator. And it was a gift given to us to be medicine but for also for the Creator's enjoyment. So anytime we are out, if it's field lacrosse, box lacrosse or any of its disciplines, we always are carrying the creator with us," Smith said. "It's actually one of the only games that you can play at the world level as an Indigenous person to Turtle Island."
King added that Lacrosse has always been part of her family too.
"It's medicine. My son played right through and completed his NCAA career also. It's just part of our house."
All of the players on the team and the staff are Indigenous.
The Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Council (I·SPARC) is a provincial organization involved in the teams which encourages "improving the health outcomes of Indigenous peoples by supporting and encouraging physically active individuals, families, and communities."
"I·SPARC really tries to get all Indigenous staff for coaching, trainers and support staff but you're not always able to get that experience or that knowledge. So then what they do is they make it mandatory for every coach to have taken the Aboriginal coaching module, which is a one-day course through the Aboriginal Sports Circle and Coaching Canada," Smith said.
The reasoning is focusing beyond the physical to include the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and emotional sides of lacrosse.
"So you'll have some players that want to do a smudge before a game and that might include their lacrosse stick and their equipment. So as a coach, you would advocate for them to be able to do that in a safe way, because it's part of their ritual, part of that cultural piece and spiritual side even though it's a physical action," Smith added.
Cultural ceremonies are a big part of NAIG, incorporating Mi’kmaw values, customs and traditions into all spaces of events taking place.
Smith said when she spoke to some of the athletes in 2017 and asked what their biggest takeaway from NAIG was, most of them answered that it wasn't lacrosse or bringing home a medal, it was the cultural pieces that they did.
"We had a mix of players that lived on reserve and off reserve, and some had strong ties to their culture, some didn't. And they were kind of just beginning their journey of learning their Indigenous identity and what that meant to them," she said.
"That's a huge part of the North American Indigenous Games is instilling that pride back, being proud of who you are, starting to learn about where you come from and meeting other Indigenous youth from across Turtle Island, introducing them to positive role models who are indigenous and exposing them to many different components of the culture."
The event, which takes place every three years, is expected to be the largest multi-sport and cultural gathering in Atlantic Canada this summer.
For more information on the games, head to the NAIG website here.