While most are familiar with the Olympics occurring every four years, for Indigenous youth across regions of North America, every four years brings a similarly significant sporting event. The 2023 North American Indigenous Games took place from July 15-23 in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Novia Scotia, as well as other locations in the Canadian province such as Dartmouth, Millbrook First Nation, and Sipekne’katik.
Wisconsin’s teams did exceptionally across all sports leading the state to place 7th in overall medal standings with 56 total of which 21 were gold. Wisconsin joined other states such as Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan, and more along with plenty of teams from Canadian provinces and territories.
While the beginnings of what would become the North American Indigenous Games started in the early 1970s, it took until 1990 for the first event officially titled North American Indigenous Games to be held in Edmonton, Alberta.
Arielle Hall has been the girl’s golf coach for the past four games and represents Ho-Chunk, though she herself is Narragansett from Rhode Island. Hall spoke on her position as fulfilling beyond just competing as helping youth prepare for the international event is a special task.
“I’ve coached middle school golf and high school golf, probably for 15 years now,” Hall told Madison365. “I was working for the Ho-Chunk Youth Services Program and the female golf coach quit at the last second. Our team rep at that time had said, ‘Hey, Arielle likes to golf, would you like the spot?’ Well, what do I have to do? You have to coach the girls when you get to Canada. Okay, no problem. I did it and I loved it.”
It was at the 2017 games that she had the opportunity to talk to a woman who had golfed previously and came back as a coach. The woman Hall talked to turned out to be a descendant of one of the men who turned the games into an official reality in 1990.
“Her grandfather was actually the one who started the Indigenous Games,” said Hall. “Because his vision, around 24 years ago, was to bring all the sports of all the tribes together and have them see and value themselves as something that could be competitive in the white world. The first games they had, she had said her grandfather had told her that it was cool to see all the athletes, but nobody interacted. The second game they had was where they had each team have a pin or design a pin.”
Interaction became a key element of the Indigenous Games and the opportunity provides an invaluable experience in connecting with other people throughout the diverse and distinct Indigenous cultures of North America.
Arvina Martin represented Stockbridge-Munsee on the 16U girl’s basketball team and is also Ho-Chunk. Her recollection of the momentous event reflects what makes it so special for so many youth.
“I thought it’d be a really great experience to meet new people and feel more connected with the community, which is what got me into it,” Martin told Madison365. “Being able to participate was really fun. I got to meet so many people and made so many friends. It was just really amazing to see how big it all was, it was really cool.”
Being in Canada, many representatives came from across territories up north, as well, including teams from Saskatchewan, Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba. Oneida boy’s wrestling coach Nicholas Metoxen has had experience on both sides as he competed in the 2014 Indigenous Games to take home a silver medal from Regina, Saskatchewan.
“That’s actually where I first met my assistant coach who came with me to the games this year in Nova Scotia, Shawn Bell,” Metoxen told Madison365. “We had such an impactful experience that when I got the opportunity to be the head coach for the team this year, it was no question, let’s do it. I know how big of an event it is, and how much it means for these Indigenous students and Indigenous youth from across Turtle Island. Getting a chance to have a big, giant meet up among nations, provinces, countries, and states.”
There are 12 tribes across Wisconsin who are offered a seat at the table to send athletes and get involved with the games, and making sure there is access for all tribes across the state is continuously being developed. The biggest tribes in Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Oneida stand as some of the more known Indigenous people in the region, but constantly connecting with other tribes is a crucial aspect of what the Indigenous Games brings.
“When you think about how many students actually get a chance to go to all these different Indigenous territories across the country, I don’t think that many get to do a lot of that adventuring and meeting other people,” said Metoxen. “It truly is just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially for some of our students who are from Oneida. We have other tribes from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy that are competing with other teams, so just getting to meet other people from within our own confederacy of nations is huge for them. I’m sure that we’re not the only ones that have that kind of connection across different territories.”
Martin backed up the importance of being able to travel internationally to meet other Indigenous athletes and build lifelong memories. With plenty of gear, accessories, and event materials to swap, competing is certainly not the only thing on the mind of youth and coaches alike.
“It was a really fun experience meeting people from other places,” Martin said. “It was cool too because there were people from all over North America, not just in Wisconsin or the US. Not everybody spoke English which was also kind of cool because it was like, ‘Whoa.’ You could go around and trade pins, so I have some pins from Saskatchewan and some from Alberta and New Mexico.”
Ranging from ages 13 to 19, it often is the case for many youth that they will have that single chance to participate in the Indigenous Games. While doing well in competition can leave good memories of the week-long trip, the past four games have shown Hall that the most important thing is providing the space and comfort for the youth to let go and enjoy the unique environment.
“I feel like we all understand these are kids out of their comfort zone away from home,” said Hall. “That nurturing is more important than that competitiveness. It becomes like, these are all my athletes. You get to know these people.”
Athletes room with other athletes who share the same or similar sports making conversation and connection easy, and with many days being devoted to sporting, athletes build strong bonds in competition, as well. Besides the human connection, the opportunity to connect with the beautiful natural settings of the area as well as the astounding architecture also provide something special.
“I would say it’s way deeper than the actual sport. The Cultural Village was awesome. They paddled in on a canoe and our kids got to see the ocean. You could take the ferry for free,” Hall said, highlighting the beautiful scenery of the main Halifax Common area as well as the surrounding locations where the games were held.
“You could hop on the ferry and go across, walk to where they were playing, and then take the ferry back. They actually got to go across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Of course, doing well in the events themselves was also a goal for our youth from Wisconsin. Wisconsin took home gold from areas of competition across swimming, track & field events, wrestling, golf, basketball, and volleyball, along with silver and bronze medals across those same areas as well as 3D archery and baseball.
With wrestling alone taking home 15 medals for Wisconsin and an impressive swimming performance by Abishea Winnicki who took home 5 gold medals for swimming, Wisconsin athletes came ready to win. Metoxen made it clear that for his wrestlers, a lot of the success came both from dedication and coming together as a team.
“For a lot of these kids, they’re doing these practices on top of doing other spring sports and fall sports,” said Metoxen. “We’re really putting our nose to the grindstone and just getting as much work done as possible. Not only did that pay dividends to their preparedness for the games, considering that it’s a completely different style of wrestling that you do in international competition than what we do in high school, but it did a lot for our team chemistry.”
For many young people who are likely both traveling and competing internationally for the first time, the opportunity seems too good to be true. The passion and excitement poured into the event are amplified by large crowds and valiant supporters that Martin spoke to being in awe of.
“It was so amazing to be playing against such good teams, and then winning was really exciting,” Martin said. “We had so many people there watching and all of the games were live-streamed. Actually, at our first game, the US ambassador in Canada came to watch our game. Afterward, they came and congratulated us on our win. That was such a cool experience. It made us feel like we were really a big deal.”
Athletes and coaches alike were met back in Wisconsin with cheers and adoration for their accomplishments in Nova Scotia. An additional hope to building connections is providing a future memory and inspiration for athletes, something that Metoxen hopes each young person carries with them to continue the work of supporting the next generation of NAIG athletes.
“All that hard work does pay off and it’s just a beautiful moment,” said Metoxen. “I’m so proud of all the work that they put in, and all the support that we got from the families. To see how dominant of a performance it was with our wrestling team winning, just goes to show what hard work gets you. I’m hoping that’s a lesson that my whole team can carry on.”
If anything demonstrates the competitive, yet fun-hearted nature of the youth’s time in Canada, it is the story Hall told of the boy’s box lacrosse who did not have enough to compete in their own sport, but had enough to compete in volleyball. They did exactly that while having fun even through their trial-by-fire introduction to the new sport.
Hall gave appreciation for the support that the athletes receive in sending them to the Indigenous games and hopes that opportunities for more and more young Indigenous athletes continue. While it may not receive as much public interest as the Olympics, for many who attend or compete, this once-in-a-lifetime chance might personally mean even more.
“I think the continued community support for our athletes is a huge kudos to Wisconsin,” Hall said in closing. “Because without that support, our tribes wouldn’t feel supported. Our delegates wouldn’t want to push to keep it going without the community’s support. If you’ve never gone, you might not care about it, but once you’ve gone and you’ve seen it, you’re hooked and want it to continue forever.”
To learn more and to see results and standings, visit the 2023 North American Indigenous Games website here.