No sport is more deeply engrained in the culture and tradition of indigenous people than lacrosse.
Kwantlen First Nation elder Lekeyten says it even lives in the stone and ground of the indigenous communities that play it.
“When you pick up a stick, you’re picking up history,” said Lekeyten.
The sport is approaching an important milestone at the upcoming North American Indigenous Games, with women’s box lacrosse teams finally being allowed to participate after 25 years.
B.C. is among the Canadian provinces and territories and U.S. states fielding a team.
The games showcase indigenous athletes from across Canada and the U.S., with this summer’s games expecting over 5,000 athletes.
History and tradition
Twenty girls from Team B.C.’s U19 women’s box lacrosse team, along with their families, gathered with Lekeyten before their first practice in Langley, where he emphasized the deep connections between lacrosse and indigenous heritage being just as important as running drills.
“There was a big stone plate between Chehalis and Harrison Hot Springs along the Chehalis River where people would gather and play lacrosse,” Lekeyten said as he told the girls a story of lacrosse his father had passed down to him.
“They would compete for weeks; they would all bring food, they would all feed each other,” Lekeyten said.
He reiterated to the girls what an honour it is to play lacrosse, and how much indigenous communities value the sport.
“Now Chehalis people look at that rock as a sacred rock, and they don’t let anyone up there because it’s looked after as history.”
A family affair: lacrosse is more than just a game
Stories similar to Lekeyten’s are echoed throughout indigenous communities across Canada and the U.S., as lacrosse is deeply rooted in family and tradition. It is a sport most of the athletes on Team B.C. have inherited from their parents.
For people like athlete Ainsley Allan and her mother Tara White, lacrosse has always been a part of their family.
“My father’s name is Timothy White, and he passed away when he was 18. For the past 36 years, my family has hosted the Tim White Memorial Lacrosse Tournament and I have basically grown up in an arena,” said White.
Allan has been playing lacrosse for eight years and White says opportunities like the indigenous games will allow her daughter to meet, not only other girls, but other indigenous girls.
“She’s never been able to play with Inuit, Métis and other aboriginal girls and to learn other cultures and heritages that are similar to hers. I’m really proud of her for that,” said White.
A significant step for indigenous female athletes
For some of the girls on Team B.C., this is the first opportunity they’ve had to play on an all-girls team because lacrosse has always been a male-dominated sport. It’s aggressive with a lot of checking and hitting. With a lack of girls’ leagues, some girls quit once puberty hit because the boys were simply too big.
Mattea Shima’s mother, Danya, grew up loving lacrosse.
“I had three daughters, and I never in a million years imagined, even as they were growing up and getting older, that lacrosse would be a sport for them because it was just not an option. But just recently, my whole world changed when girls teams like this started sprouting up,” she said.
Team B.C. doesn’t fall into the stereotype of “girls not being as aggressive as boys.” Their first practice as a team was high energy, and the girls weren’t afraid to hit each other. Each athlete seemed like she had something to prove – that her skills and training warranted her being on the team.
Métis athlete Sophie Scobie said she uses lacrosse as an outlet.
“I like the people who come out to play and I love the aggression and intensity of the sport.”
It’s not all about bringing home gold
Emotions and traditions aside, hopes are high for the team.
“I’m not going to lie, I really hope to see gold at the end of the games,” said Cherlyn Billy, the team’s manager.
“But in the end, it’s not about winning, it’s about playing the sport so well that, at the end of the day, people respect the fact that you were there and you never stopped playing. That you had that same passion you started with at the end as well.”
This year’s North American Indigenous Games are being held in Toronto, Ont., from July 16 to 23.