For the first time since the games inception back in 1990, a delegation of Cree youth made their way to the 2008 North American Indigenous Games in the hopes of bringing back gold in honor of their people.

The seven-day event, held in Cowichan, B.C., saw more than 4,500 Aboriginal athletes and 3,000 cultural participants from across Canada and the United States, including 200 athletes from Quebec’s Cree, Mohawk, Besamite and other Native communities under the moniker, The Eastern Door and the North.

In total, the collective indigenous groups from Quebec placed 6th overall, bringing home 86 medals – 34 gold, 26 silver and another 26 bronze. On top of their medals, at the event’s closing ceremonies, The Eastern Door and the North were presented the prestigious John Fletcher Spirit Award, a carved paddle given to the team that demonstrated the spirit of teamwork, fair play, respect and integrity throughout the games. The paddle has a Thunderbird carved into it so the team can set and see its goals.

Teams from the Cree Nation participated in softball and basketball with one participant in the swimming division. Though the softball and basketball teams faced a number of defeats, Mistissini’s own Gabriel Rabbitskin won three gold and one silver medals in various swimming competitions.

“It was a great experience to be there and to see our young people full of smiles and enjoying themselves. Even though they faced defeats, they never gave up,” said Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff.

According to Jeff Spencer, the executive director for the provincial organization responsible for bringing the Crees to the NAIG, Cowichan did a formidable job of hosting the event and put on a spectacular opening ceremony.

“About 5000 youth walked off the main street in Cowichan into the park at the cultural centre by the river. In Winnipeg, they did it in a stadium but here they did it traditionally, right into a field and then everyone sat down. You were not in a stadium surrounded by concrete, but you were in the cultural area of the games,” said Spencer.

“It was so wonderful. It felt like you were at the Native Olympics when the delegations marched in,” said Don Nicholls, Cree Regional Authority Political Attache for both the Deputy and Grand Chiefs.

For the games a stage had been constructed at the end of the field that was used for the opening ceremonies and for the cultural events put on throughout the duration of the games.

Spencer spoke highly of the professionalism of the traditional performances that were staged. “It was such a spectacular thing. It was a culmination of sports and culture at its best. They really put on a great show.”

Iserhoff also stated how much the cultural performances added to the overall atmosphere of the event and how perhaps in the future the Cree Nation could become part of this aspect of the games as well.

Though there may not have been as many athletes from Quebec as other provinces, according to some, they still made an enthusiastic impression on the games.

“When I received the calls about the opening ceremonies, I was told that we were the craziest bunch of the group and throughout the games we were able to influence all of these decisions with the way we acted at the opening ceremonies. We were able to continue throughout that week, although we were loosing games, we were still able to maintain a positive team atmosphere,” said Gerard Longchap who coached the juvenile basketball team.

At the same time Longchap contends that the sheer magnitude of the games was a bit daunting for the Cree teams, never having participated in an event of such scale.

“Basketball has only been around for so many years in the Cree communities. We hardly ever played outside of our communities and here we were playing in front of cameras and a huge crowd and in front of girls. These boys had to shake off their jitters for two or three games to be able to play the competitive game that they play here at home,” said Longchap.

Even though Longchap’s team did not come out on top, what was most touching for him was how his team truly took to heart the wonderful opportunity it had been given. As the games drew to an end, many of the players expressed the desire to come back as coaches for the next games.

“That was my goal, to convince them that there are other people out there who need this opportunity,” said Longchap.

NAIG also left a lasting impression on Chirstine Petawabano, the basketball team’s manager. Though she admits that the competitiveness and the grand scale of the event may have been a little overwhelming for the athletes, in recognizing how little time the teams had to prepare prior to the event in comparison to some of the teams from other provinces and states, she was ultimately proud of the Cree youth’s performance. Since her experience at the games, she has made a personal commitment to furthering Cree youth along for the next games to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2011.

After some deliberations with representatives from the Eastern Door teams, they concluded that the inter Band games could serve as a qualifier for future NAIG competitions. They also concluded that different areas in the province could be responsible for different training sections such as the suggestion of Mistissini possibly being the centre for basketball and soccer due to its new sports complex.

“We are going to be looking at giving equal opportunities to Aboriginal youth throughout the province and I am going to be part of that committee. So I am going to be active for the inter Band games and also for the next NAIG,” said Petawabano.

The recognition that the Crees could and perhaps should play a larger part in the upcoming NAIG rang true across the board.

It wasn’t just that there were a number of categories that Cree participants could have excelled at from javelin throwing to rifle shooting to canoeing to volleyball but that the idea of what kind of an effect an intensive focus on athleticism would have on the communities.

Nicholls remarked on how all of the participants in the games had to sign a contract attesting to how they would not drink or smoke throughout the duration of the games. Setting a good example, the athlete’s coaches and chaperones also signed contracts as a sign of support.

“There is something to be said about sports and recreation that when you are in training and with goals to achieve that you are not drinking, you are not smoking, and you are not staying up late. You are taking care of yourself and you are developing all of these skills and characteristics to help you succeed in life. So I was really impressed with that,” said Nicholls.

Nicholls went on to describe how kids whose lives revolve around training end up in bed at night to prepare to meet their training goals the following day as opposed to hanging out late at night. The quality of these athletes’ participation in school might also improve as they would feel more refreshed as a result of a healthier lifestyle and being more goal-oriented.

Iserhoff also wondered what kind of effect increased competitive athleticism would have on the Cree Nation considering some of the health difficulties that abound in the North, particularly diabetes.

“If we promote this kind of thing in the community, perhaps the numbers that we are seeing now for diabetes could go down. It would help the kids both with their motivation and their health and their self-esteem,” said Iserhoff.

What stands in the way of this kind of progress however is both manpower and funding to not only get the events organized but to get the athletes to them.

For as much as Iserhoff could not stress the need for the parents of these athletes to be available to them for support, there is also a need for those within the Nation to devote their time and energy to coaching and organizing these events. Though Iserhoff said that a secretary of state from the Canadian government who was in attendance at NAIG mentioned how an extra $160 million would be going into sports for all of Canada, there was no indication of how much would be earmarked for Indigenous athletes.

Still, the 2008 NAIG produced many intense and remarkable moments for those who were there. What stood out most for Longchap was when Gabriel Rabbitskin won two gold medals in one day.

Upon receiving his medals, Longchap overheard Rabbitskin say to a Mohawk journalist, that he wanted to dedicate his games and performance to the Crees of Mistissini.

“When he said that the whole Cree Nation blew up and got even crazier and rowdier than usual,” said Longchap, laughing at how it wasn’t a wonder the Eastern Door and the North won the spirit award.

At the same time, not every memory from this event revolved around competition as Iserhoff described a truly emotional and special interaction he had with one BC local while out for dinner with the Crees from the team.

As team members enjoyed their meal while conversing in Cree amongst each other, a woman approached their table with tears in her eyes. “She said, ‘I am so happy that you guys came here and I am able to hear young people speak their own language.’ It had a huge effect on her and that is something that the Cree Nation should be proud of. I told her that over 95% of our people still speak Cree,” said Iserhoff with pride.

With Quebec’s Crees making their debut at the NAIG, the eyes of those who attended and participated are now turned towards the 2011 event in Milwaukee. Having been commended for their spirit and good sportsmanship, these athletes came home with many lessons to share and an enthusiasm that will surely ripple throughout the communities.

For those future hopefuls, keep in mind, this is only the beginning.