North American Indigenous Games and the Power of Sport…

I left home at a young age, home being Bearskin Lake, Ontario. A playground for God’s children, a piece of land wedged between snake shaped rivers, deep lakes with mystery wandering its bottoms and a wildlife content with providing our stories. A place for the retiring mind where our dreams can rest, where a life will reach its end, a place I will return. It is the peak of my mountain in life, a mountain I will conquer having looked down on all my successes as I watch my final sunset and wish the best of luck to those beginning to ascend, those about to see what I saw but in a different light, a better one.

Like a child taken from his family, a part of me lost something when I was taken from my land, a way of life I will need to re-learn, however, I had gained a knowledge in sports that can be taught no other way except to play. I was given a chance to play a game I grew to love, a game that found a heartbeat within me, revitalizing a spirit of broken generations, a breath of fresh air found in the cold air and rinks I was immersed in.

Hockey was a resurrection, it was a teaching that taught me the feeling of pain, hurt, love, insecurity, confidence, adversity, teamwork, knowledge, toughness, discipline, dedication and hard work. Essentially, life lessons, valuable principles that built a foundation of success, no matter what I chose to do with it. It also allowed me to form friendships and bonds I would not have found elsewhere. It was a bridge between my world and that of others, a brotherhood needed to succeed as a team, family values needed to win.

I once played with a guy from Miramichi, New Brunswick who admitted that before he met me he didn’t like Indians and that I was the first one he met, his father was a lobster fisherman in the Burnt Church dispute. We became best friends and golfed almost everyday, but backed each other up on the ice more than once, I don’t know who was tougher between us, but I know we grew to love and respect each other, which in turn changed his outlook on my people, we still talk to this day.

I played with a guy from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, a red headed quiet fellow, who took me for dinner one night and admitted to me he was half native. I had no idea and he showed me his mom’s status card, a beautiful Plains Cree woman, smiling at me a painful smile, telling me stories through her son, a son who loved and missed her. Her status card he carried in his wallet all his life, looking at it daily, reminded of who he was, praying for strength to be proud, a prayer often unanswered, one he needed my help with. He is one of many I remember and always will from my journey.

The power of sport is like the power of prayer, it is like the power of the land, it is a seed planted in the heart and soul of those who engage, growing and expressing itself through the spirit of our children and our youth who will become leaders not just of tomorrow, but now. Sports, whether it be hockey, golf, baseball, basketball or swimming, is a lesson in growth, teamwork and overcoming adversity with hard-work, it is a necessary instrument in the development of a Nation, much like Education, it needs to be harnessed, encouraged and supported by all people of all ages, Native and Non-Native, those who believe in a better society and better country, one to be proud of.

So as I sit and listen to the many little warriors fighting for gold in Regina, Saskatchewan at the North American Indigenous Games, I sit with pride, knowing some Bearskin Lakers, Shoal Lakers, Treaty 9’ers and Treaty 3’ers compete, but most of all, proud because the fact that an entire generation of leaders are developing principles so valuable they cannot be explained, we can only wait to see the outcome. A generation that does not climb a mountain of life like I did, but builds it, that is called innovation. Our only duty as their guardians is to promote and encourage, then watch them flourish, a revolution of leaders developed from the power of sport.

Gino Odjick My Hero

I read about Gino Odjick last week and his health problems, doctors say he has months to live, but that there is hope. I don’t know what Gino is going through today, I imagine he is wanting to reflect on a life lived many cannot comprehend. The stories I read were about his dealings with racism as an Indian kid growing up in a place where being Indian was frowned upon. Hockey was an outlet, an escape of some kind and I thought of this as I looked at the poster that has hung on my wall for 20 years, a poster of him in his Canucks gear, which was signed,  “To Derek, All the Best, Gino”.

If I could talk to Gino I would say that you were and still are my hero because when you were playing in the world’s best hockey league I didn’t see an enforcer, I saw an Indian with the same brown skin as me, a modern day warrior who used more than his fists to get where he had to, a warrior who fought with all it took within his body, soul and spirit to get there, the fists were a small part of something much bigger. 

I would tell you that hockey was also an outlet for me, an outlet from a haunting past I couldn’t and didn’t want to understand at the time, a past non-existent once I stepped on that ice. There was something about gliding through the cold winter air as if I had wings that freed me, wings on my feet with blades and I knew it then, that they were going to get me to where I wanted to go. Like you Gino, those wings got me far, they really did.

I understand now that hockey was not a game, it was so much more, an outlet yes, but also a passion that provided love to a kid who needed it and the rink was a place that I could feel safe and let my imagination run free. I don’t think you would have saw a bigger smile on an Indian boy, when I was winning the Stanley Cup with Wayne Gretzky every night.

As you might imagine, the hardest part  was leaving the rink to a place just a bit darker than I liked, life, where everything I couldn’t leave behind was there again, when I had to take off my wings and deal with reality, however, I didn’t have to reach for the stars when the rink was a short walk from my house, my dreams were just up the road and I lived them everyday. 

I don’t know if you have months to live, I sure hope you don’t. I just want you to know that hockey saved my life, as it did for you and I hope that one more time, hockey can save your life and I would say Miigwetch, for being an inspiration to myself and many others, but that I would like to thank hockey also, which in a way connected us, I think you might have been skating with me on those cold winter nights, I figure that love had to come from somewhere….