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Basketball: More than just a game for Indigenous communities

Attending the All Native Basketball Tournament was a powerful experience for Interior News editor
For your consideration - Thom Barker

Last week, I wrote about how big a deal the All Native Basketball Tournament is after spending just one day there.

After spending the entire week in Prince Rupert, I may have underestimated its significance.

What is truly fascinating is how the Indigenous people of B.C. have taken this game — invented by a white man, learned by their ancestors in the notorious residential school system and ostensibly a symbol of colonial oppression — and made it their own.

Not to overstep, as my familiarity with basketball in First Nations culture is in its infancy, I turn to a great article by Trevor Jang published by The Walrus magazine in 2018.

Jang is a journalist of mixed Wet’suwet’en, Chinese and European heritage who spent several years doing play-by-play announcing of the Junior All Native Basketball Tournament for Canada’s First Nations Radio Network (CFNR).

“Though the sport as we know it was created by Canadian educator James Naismith in 1891, basketball hasn’t always been embedded in BC First Nations culture,” he wrote. “But for Indigenous youth today, it is just as much a part of their day-to-day lives as hunting and fishing were for their ancestors. ‘For all of us, basketball really became sacred,’ says Tyson Touchie, a former player who joined the Storm as an assistant coach in 2017. (He still plays competitively on weekends.) ‘It’s entrenched in our culture’.”

Jang goes on to chronicle how the Canadian government’s 1885-1951 ban on potlatches made basketball a surrogate.

“If government authorities caught wind of a potlatch happening, chiefs were jailed and ceremonial objects, such as masks or regalia, were confiscated or burned,” he continued.

“But basketball was sanctioned by residential schools, and local tournaments became a clever way for nations to continue to gather, which would have been otherwise illegal. ‘Our great-grandparents and grandparents were so smart,’ says Touchie. ‘They knew that coming together and just relating to each other again was so important. Even though [government officials] banned the potlatch and our traditional ceremonies, they couldn’t touch basketball. That filled that gap for the time being, because we’re all still here’.”

The power of sports in building camaraderie, pride, confidence and belonging is undisputed. Just being on the hardwood last week, brought my own days on the courts and of being a parent on the sidelines back to me.

In the tournament guide, prepared by our sister paper, The Prince Rupert Northern View, there are more stories about the healing power of basketball and how it is an integral part of the DNA of Indigenous communities.

It made me want to be part of it, not just a peripheral observer doing the job of capturing the sights and sounds and reporting the results.

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Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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