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NAIG legacy extends well beyond sport

Team Saskatchewan NAIG 2017

In just one week, more than 5,000 number of athletes, coaches and team personnel are expected to gather for the 10th installment of the North American Indigenous Games.

The Games will run July 15-23 in Nova Scotia. NAIG 2023 will see athletes aged 13-19 competing in 16 events at venues in and around Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, Millbrook First Nation and Sipeke’katik.

Saskatchewan will send around 500 athletes, coaches and managers to this year’s event.

But what is NAIG and what is the multi-sport games’ history?

Starting Blocks

NAIG 2014 Team Saskatchewan track

The first NAIG was held in 1990 at Edmonton, the culmination of a long-standing dream to create a large-scale multi-sport athletic competition for Indigenous people across the continent.

According to the NAIG 2023 website, it was in 1975 that Willie Littlechild proposed the concept to the National Indian Athletic Association. Littlechild’s proposal came on the heels of a successful Native Summer Games in 1971 and Western Canada Native Winter Games in 1973 — both held in Alberta.

Littlechild’s vision was supported by fellow Albertan John Fletcher and the concept was presented again in 1977 at the Annual Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, where it also received widespread support.

Thirteen years later, with Littlechild as honourary president and Charles Wood as event chairperson, the inaugural North American Indigenous Games were underway.

The next steps

NAIG 2006 Team Sask canoe

Following the Edmonton Games, governance and management was handed over to the newly-formed NAIG Council.

Subsequent Games were then organized at:

  • Prince Albert, Sask. – 1993
  • Blaine, Minn. – 1995
  • Victoria, B.C. – 1997
  • Winnipeg, Man. – 2002
  • Denver, Colo. – 2006
  • Cowichan, B.C. – 2008
  • Regina, Sask. – 2014
  • Toronto, Ont. – 2017

From those Games, Saskatchewan has emerged six times with the most medals of any province, state or territory. In 2017, the last year the Games were held, Saskatchewan finished second overall in both gold medals with 65 and total medals with 166. This year’s NAIG was originally scheduled for 2020 before that year’s event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I feel like now there is no limitation. And that I don’t have to abide by what others think is possible.”

The results are a rightful source of pride but Wood is quoted as saying the vision for the NAIG was to create an event “through which young Aboriginal people could come together to excel in their athletic field of endeavour and to come together to do other things: to make new friendships, to renew old ones and so on.”

It turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

A lasting impact

Team Sask NAIG 2014 celebration

For NAIG participants, sport has proven to be much more than a game.

A 2008 study authored by researchers from Toronto Metropolitan University and Cowichan’s NAIG committee found that “the importance of the NAIG and similar physical activity, sport and recreation programs go far beyond the physical benefits.” Further, “the NAIG and related activities can serve as a catalyst to become more active, have greater self-respect, and foster leadership skill development. The NAIG builds pride in communities and with individuals.”

Results from a 2014 Praxis Research survey of athletes from Regina’s Games echoed those sentiments:

  • Ninety-one per cent believed that others in their communities saw them as role models
  • Sixty-nine per cent felt their experience positively influenced the way others saw them
  • Eighty-nine per cent said they felt more confidence as a result of competing
  • And 63 per cent felt more connected with their Indigenous heritage as a result of NAIG 2014

“Through the NAIG I feel that I am able to provide opportunities to youth that will have a positive impact on their lives and future well-being,” one coach was quoted as saying in response to the 2014 survey.

From one athlete’s perspective: “Most of my friends who do not play sports are not heading toward the greatest future they deserve.”

Or, as another said: “I feel like now there is no limitation. And that I don’t have to abide by what others think is possible.”

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