The Opening Ceremony of the 2002 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in Winnipeg saw some 20,686 in attendance to take in the presentation of sports and culture.

The Sacred Fire that symbolizes the Spirit of the Games, Strong, Brave and True was lit at the Opening Ceremony with a prayer and then carried by foot to Spirit Island. The Sacred Fire burned at Spirit Island until the end of games.

Spirit Island, located at the Forks in downtown Winnipeg, was designated as a sacred place where everyone came to share and experience Aboriginal culture, and for healing ceremonies. Four First Nation and Metis youth carried the Sacred Fire two kilometres each and made four significant stops to honour the four directions through the city centre.

The ceremony also took time to honour the past by recognizing four distinct Tribal Journeys that replicated routes used by travelers long ago. As well, the 1967 Pan American torch bearers were invited and honored by carrying the NAIG council flag into the stadium and handed off to the Sergeant Tommy Prince Cadets to raise the flag for the games. The whole evening was broadcast live on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Tom Jackson sang his rendition of the national anthem with his hand drum, Ray St. Germain led the salute to the Metis nation and Susan Aglukark gave the grand finale performance with her song ‘He Na Ho’ that had the whole stadium celebrating the opening of the games.

About 6,000 athletes from aboriginal communites across Canada and the United States competed in the continent’s biggest event of its kind. The North American Indigenous Games was first held in Edmonton in 1990. Since then, the number of athletes taking part has doubled.

One goal of the 11 -day event is to give native youth a chance to experience international competition.

“We don’t have that much on reserves, and when we do play, we play just against each other and maybe some other reserves,” said basketball athlete Jaime Battist ofTeam Nova Scotia. “But the North American Indigenous Games gives us something to shoot for, something to want to play hard for and look forward to all year.” Winnipeg’s Jason Loutitt, a rising star on the Canadian marathon circuit, ran faster than he has before. He says his race results are a source of pride for other aboriginal athletes. “Hearing kids talk about me as I walk by, getting them to come up, not just the kids but the adults come up and shake my hand.

It really inspires me,” he said.

Some athletes say while the competitve spirit is strong, what’s even stronger is the sense of community and sharing. “After the game you shake hands, you talk, you ask about your backgrounds and your experiences,” said Carla Taylor of Team Manitoba. “And it’s just been a very positive experience so far.”