For many teen athletes on Team Yukon, the North American Indigenous Games is a once – maybe twice – in a lifetime opportunity.
That’s why the send-off to what’s often coined the “Indigenous Olympics” was celebrated with a pep rally Thursday evening in downtown Whitehorse.
About 100 athletes gathered for speeches, dancing and a drum procession to kick off the trip to Halifax in a good way.
NAIG is a major sporting event for Indigenous athletes between the ages of 13 to 19 from across Canada and the United States.
It’s typically held every four years, attracting more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and team staff from more than 750 Indigenous Nations.
Now hosting its 10th event, the 2023 Games will be held on the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq people in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) from July 15 to 23.
Jasper Charlie of the Little/Salmon Carmacks First Nation (LSCFN) will be competing in NAIG’s athletics division.
While he’s excited for the competition, he’s also looking forward to connecting with Indigenous people from across Turtle Island.
“Down in, I think it’s Arizona, the Navaho people are closely related to the Northern Tutchone people of LSCFN. It’d be great to hear legends and stories of elders,” he said.
For Charlie’s teammate Ella Johnston, it’s much the same.
“It brings us together, and for us kids it provides a lot of opportunities to be closer with our culture or just people in general,” she said.
For others like volleyball player Kianna Blake, the games are as nerve-wracking as they are exciting.
“I can feel it in my stomach,” she said. “I’m very nervous about some of the other teams we’re playing against, but I know that we’ve been practising and we’re very ready to do this.”
Karee Vallevand, assistant Chef de Mission for Team Yukon, said the team has faced challenges in recent years.
Due to the games being postponed for three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many athletes have since aged out.
Some programming, too, was not extended to Yukon’s communities in recent years. That meant this year’s team only has around a dozen athletes competing from the territory’s communities.
“Not a lot of community kids came forward, so hopefully in the next three or four years we can build up that capacity again,” she said.
With a healthy roster of athletes for this year, she said the team is eager to get started so they can bring home gold.
“Some of them have never been on a plane before, and just to meet people from other areas, it’s exciting for them,” she said. “We’re going to make it the best experience for them.”