Indigenous women’s basketball team hustling to realize a dream

‘Diamonds of the Downtown Eastside’ have ‘paid their dues, says the All My Relations basketball team’s manager Joleen Mitton, who has been a major force in raising awareness and funds to support the community.

Indigenous women's basketball

The AMR basketball team is about creating and preserving safe spaces for Indigenous players in the community, the team’s manager Joleen Mitton tells IndigiNews. Photo courtesy: AMR.

All My Relations (AMR) Indigenous women’s basketball team has launched a new fundraising campaign to help send them to compete in the much anticipated annual All Native Basketball Tournament (ANBT) on Ts’msyen territory in Prince Rupert this April.

The team’s manager and player, Joleen Mitton, who’s Nehiyaw (Cree) and Dunne-za, born and raised in East Vancouver, who joined the team in 2005, changed the name from Storm to All My Relations in 2012. She tells IndigiNews over the phone that the team has come a long way from its inception nineteen years ago.

“We weren’t outstanding when we first began, no structure, just a ragtag group of kids from East Van and a few players from the Squamish Reserve — some of us were coming from dysfunctional homes,” says Mitton. “There was a lot of intergenerational trauma that we were all dealing with. It is a testament to our strength and resilience that we stuck together.”

While AMR’s primary focus is basketball, the team has also nurtured an “underground scene” over the years, Mitton says, creating safe spaces for Indigenous people in the community.

“AMR is about being able to come and have a safe space to be and play. We are looking out for our young ones out there now,” Mitton says. “At the end of the day we just want to have a good time, our communities have been through a lot, we need each other.”

Mitton is also the founder of the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, an annual event that showcases authentic Indigenous art, fashion and design. She says the AMR team branched into a non-profit over the last two years to sustain funding and support for the players and their dedication to a healthy community and lifestyle.

“AMR is about being able to come and have a safe space to be and play. It’s about being able to have a good time,” Mitton says.

While COVID-related lockdowns have made it more difficult to gather and restrictions have paid a toll on everyone’s health, the team is determined to stay strong, she says. They do that by checking in with everyone, by making sure that AMR is a safe place to land.

Supporting Indigenous sports, health and wellbeing

Indigenous women's basketball
The team collaborated with The Local Collective on the colours and design of the ball. Mitton says the AMR plans to do more customised balls in the future, featuring the work and design of Indigenous artists in the community. Photo courtesy: AMR.

The AMR team partnered with the Toronto-based advertising company The Local Collective for the design and creation of the game-ready basketballs involved in the fundraising campaign. Each ball is being sold for $100.

While their ongoing fundraising campaign will support their immediate goal of attending the ANBT in April, additional funds will go towards the AMR Physical Literacy Program, an Indigenous-oriented initiative designed to support the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness of the community, Mitton says.

The annual ANBT tournament, one the most important events for Indigenous communities across the coast, has been cancelled for the past two years due to COVID. It first began in 1959, after the potlatch ban was lifted in Canada — a colonial law that prohibited Indigenous communities (though many continued to gather and govern underground) from potlatching and carrying out their legal systems and cultures.

Mitton says she remembers how she felt the first time she attended the ANBT and witnessed the opening ceremony — the energy of hundreds of Indigenous people coming together, singing, dancing, embodying their cultures, competing, connecting through their love for basketball.

“I remember going for the first time … it’s like the Olympics, whatever that feeling is for people, but better,” Mitton says. “There’s a Spirit attached to this. It’s a pure experience … it’s no wonder they keep going back every year.”

We’ve paid our dues’

Laura Lewis, from the Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Tahltan and Tlingit Nations, I grew up in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and quickly learned about AMR when she joined the Native basketball community in 2009, at 14 years old, she tells IndigiNews.

She joined the AMR team ten years ago, and has made many memories along the way, on and off the court, she says.

“AMR is a passionate and strong group of individuals who also seek to uplift and shed light on issues within the Indigenous community,” Lewis says. “Basketball and the team mean everything to me.”

Lewis says growing up in the DTES, she has seen many great Indigenous athletes lose their way and “succumb to the environment that surrounds the city and the weight of intergenerational trauma.”

“If it wasn’t for basketball, and AMR, I wouldn’t have gained the confidence to play at the post-secondary level … I would have been mixed in with the wrong crowd as a teenager and young adult, but instead, I was at basketball practices and games, travelling to tournaments, playing the sport I love with people who share the same passion for the game as I do.”

Lewis hopes to be able to participate in the ANBT with her team to showcase their hard work, hustle and heart, she says.

Indigenous women's basketball
Laura Lewis says the All My Relations basketball team has kept her on a healthy path throughout the years and provided a safe space to land. Photo courtesy: AMR.

“We are like the diamonds of the Downtown Eastside, always under pressure … ready for that chance to shine,” she says. “My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my grandfather played in the ANBT. For me, it’s following that family tradition and raising my torch, like those before me — displaying that same grit and passion, knowing that I am making my family proud.”

Mitton estimates that the cost to send the team and their coach Pam Baker (whose ancestral name is Hi-mi-ka-las, of Squamish and Kwakiutl descent) would be around $15,000.

“Going to the ANBT is expensive … And we’ve paid our dues. We’ve slept on floors just to play ball, we did billets … I remember we all got bed bugs one year, all bit up,” Mitton humbly remembers. “We need to get there and get there comfortably, so we can play well.”

On March 4, the ARM team will host a music and fashion show at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre in Vancouver at 8p.m., including an auction, as a part of their ongoing fundraising efforts. The team will also host their 4th annual tournament on Mother’s Day weekend, May 7 and 8 at the Britannia Secondary school. More information on purchasing tickets for the events can be found on the team’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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