By Solana Cain
Community Journalism Trainer
On my first day in Naotkamegwanning First Nation a soccer tournament was in progress for Grades 1 through 3. My community liaison, Kurtis Medicine, and I were touring the facilities near Baibombeh School so he asked if we could stop and watch his daughter play. I was already intrigued by the classic rock music that was drifting over from the school’s field.
Once we made our way around the long school structure, I watched as children, all under the age of nine, ran after the checkered ball and made earnest attempts at a goal. Parents, teenagers and other community members lined the edge of the field watching and cheering on the children from their community.
Very quickly, it became evident to me that sport is big in Naotkamegwanning. My outsider presence was barely noticed as people eagerly watched the game unfold. Everyone took the game seriously, especially the children. I watched as the co-ed teammates passed the ball fairly, subs moved hastily and when the ball rolled over the sidelines there were no quarrels over who got to throw-in. Too soon the game was over and all the players excitedly lined up to shake hands with their opponents.
Kurtis said goodbye to his family, after praising his daughter, and we headed back to resume our tour. As we were leaving, I passed a table lined with polished trophies and medals. Only then did I realize that I had no idea who won. Clearly, that was not the main objective.
In Naotkamegwanning, also known as Whitefish Bay, participation in sport is important. I hadn’t been there 24 hours and already several community members had advised me to check out the trophy case within the school and also the hanging banners in gymnasium showcasing accolades.
Next, Kurtis brought me to see where my office would be. When we walked into the Cultural Centre / Arena building, I immediately felt the rubber flooring under my soles but did not draw the connection until Kurtis told me to put my face to a window of a darkened room. Behind the locked door, I could make out an ice rink.
It’s off-season for Baibombeh School’s hockey team so I’ll be utilizing the coach’s office. A large WINTERHAWKS poster covers one wall (the school’s hockey team), a goalie mask hangs from another and outdated schedules for rink use can be found everywhere. The schedules outline what times were public skate, women’s ice, men’s ice, family skate, Lil Rangers and so forth.
“Everyone respects the rink,” said Mary Anne Mooring. “There’s no graffiti and everyone cleans up after themselves.” Alongside her role as manager of the arena, Mary Anne is currently working on plans for a skatepark in the shape of a snake to go around the new, and extremely popular, basketball court.
While in Naotkamegwanning, I will be staying with Susan Copenace. She manages the community’s new and only restaurant called Wiisinin Café, but she’s known by everyone in community due to her last job as the school’s bus driver. For 41 years, Susan drove Baibombeh’s bus (and she still does occasionally when needed). A certificate of recognition for her decades of service proudly hangs in her living room alongside pictures of her family. She recounts the stern talks Naotkamegwanning’s athletes received on the bus before heading into any other school to play a match.
“We made them leave their hats on the bus,” she recalls.
Susan tells me the youth need to play. Like learning Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) language, participation in sport is an important part of Naotkamegwanning’s culture and tradition. Indigenous people’s involvement in sport in this country has been extensive. A quick google search brought up names like: long distance runner Tom Longboat from Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in southern Ontario, who dominated any race and was one of the most celebrated pre-WWI athletes; hockey player Ted Nolan, of the Garden River First Nation in northwestern Ontario, who was drafted into the NHL and later hired as head coach for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders; and twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth, members of the Gwich’in First Nation in Northwest Territories, competed in cross-country skiing at four Winter Olympic Games. The list goes on.
On Susan’s kitchen table lies a copy of the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse. Recently adapted into a film, Susan insists on reading the book before seeing the film. While the main character at the centre of the story is fictitious, the story of Indigenous children torn from their families, and culture, and placed into brutal residential schools is fact. Elders from Naotkamegwanning know this story intimately. That some were able to find solace on the ice and persevere is a one of many testaments to the strength, resilience and distinction of Indigenous peoples.
“This is our story,” asserts Susan.
Thus the children of Naotkamegwanning are encouraged to play sports.
Community journalism training is an integral part of JHR’s larger Indigenous Reporters Program. In-community training in Ontario is generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.