With huge smiles and an abundance of medals around their necks, Kahnawake’s athletes returned from the 2023 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) to a joyous community parade, where the streets were lined with friends and family celebrating their achievements.
“We all just bonded, and being there was a really cool experience. Everything went really well,” said Tylee Deere, who played for the Eastern Door and The North (EDN) U16 girls’ basketball team. She attended Tuesday’s homecoming parade with her teammates. “It was just a really cool experience, being able to get that exposure, and knowing that there’s a lot of other Indigenous athletes out there, and that we’re still here, still doing what we do best.”
NAIG is a highlight of many young athletes’ sporting careers. With over 5,000 participants in 16 different sports, the competition is one of the biggest that youth can compete in. Rolling around only once every four years, NAIG is open to athletes between the ages of 13-19, meaning the opportunity to compete may come up only once or twice in a young athlete’s career. Due to the pandemic, 2020’s NAIG was cancelled, meaning this year’s competition was long-awaited for many.
“It’s really cool to see the community come together and recognize all the athletes in the games,” Deere said.
Athletes attended the parade with their coaches, such as Maris Jacobs, who coaches at the Onake Paddling Club and was a Team EDN paddling coach.
“This is a really nice event. You get to see everybody that’s been spread out over the last week or so. I’m just happy to see such a good turnout,” she said. “It’s a nice send off. It’s a nice way to end it before going our separate ways as Team EDN until next time.”
For Jacobs, seeing so much community support is a reminder of how many people it takes to support and raise an athlete over the years.
“I think having a community to model your team after is the best part of travelling to go to NAIG,” she said. “Because we have such a strong community backbone here, we’re able to bring that wherever we go. People notice that the most. That’s why it’s important to have the support when we come back.”
Team EDN U19 boys basketball player Maxwell Goodleaf was also impressed by the turnout. He had previously played baseball for Team EDN at the last games, and so was excited to represent his community in basketball once again this year.
“It’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s been a long, well-deserved wait, and it was a ton of fun.”
Among the supporters cheering on the athletes was Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Harry Rice. Rice took time off work to travel to Halifax and support Team EDN at the games, attending as a community member rather than as an MCK representative.
“I think this is one of the greatest things that we can participate in. I think that one of the greatest things we can expose our children to is the NAIG,” he said. “It was great, it was a lot of fun.”
The parade wound its way in front of the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), where staff and residents stood and waved from their windows, with colourful banners pasted up for the athletes to see. Rice was particularly pleased that those community members were able to celebrate the athletes.
“I love that they made it a point to pass by the hospital, just to give the hospital that inclusion to be with the athletes. Maybe some grandmas and grandpas are in the hospital, and they’d like to see their grandsons and granddaughters come around on the floats,” he said. “It’s really, really important that we continue to stay strong for our youth, but it’s awesome to just come together as Kahnawake right now.”
Rice said that the games itself were already emotional, and that coaching staff, parents, and community supporters who attended were already bursting with pride for all the athletes. But the welcome home parade, Rice said, was a particular demonstration of the community’s love for the young sports stars.
“What a nice, nice end to the Indigenous Games. It’s a nice warm welcome for the kids. It’s very, very heartwarming,” he said. “I think these opportunities should be for everybody. It’s one of those things where this experience is going to be with them forever.”
Team EDN finished the games in sixth place overall, bringing home 63 medals – 17 gold, 24 silver, and 22 bronze.
“It’s a real testament to the talent that the athletes from Kahnawake have,” Rice said. “Undoubtedly we can participate and compete with just about every province or state in North America.”
Jacobs said that she hopes the ongoing community support will serve as a reminder to all athletes that Kahnawake is always standing behind them cheering them on.
“It motivates them to keep going, to do it again, to train,” she said. “It’s more exciting when you come home to people who want to celebrate you, it feels good.”
The next opportunity athletes will have to participate in the NAIG will be in 2027, where the games will be headed to Calgary, Alberta. For those hungry for more sport, stay tuned for next month’s coverage of the Masters Indigenous Games, taking place in Ottawa from August 24-27.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 28, in issue 32.30 of The Eastern Door.