A group of Native American athletes, mostly from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, are heading to Canada this week to compete in an athletic competition that draws the largest cultural gathering of indigenous people in North America
Team Colorado will be one of 19 teams throughout North America competing in Toronto, Canada.
“It’s a huge treat for us to be a part of these games,” said Kevin Winkler, chef de mission of Team Colorado. “Chef de mission” is a Canadian term meaning head of team. “For kids, it’s a chance to step away from the culture and life that they know and get to meet and be a part of Native cultures from all over the country.”
This is the first year the NAIG will take place in a major city.
Sixty athletes, ages 13 to 19, and 20 coaches will represent Team Colorado, which is mainly made up of the state’s two Ute tribes. Thirty-five athletes are from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and 17 athletes are from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said Winkler, who works at the Sun Ute Community Center in Ignacio. The rest are from various locations throughout Colorado.
A team from Colorado has participated in every NAIG except for the inaugural event in 1990.
“They went from playing in a field in the middle of nowhere to now being at some major university,” Winkler said.
Team Colorado has mostly won medals in individual events in the past. In 2014, Team Colorado won a silver medal in archery and several more in swimming.
“We had a really, really good swimmer,” Winkler said. “She cleaned up.”
This year, the team will compete in archery, men’s and women’s basketball, cross county, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. Teams were assembled in October and have been practicing since February.
A majority of the kids play for their high school teams in the area, Winkler said.
Many of the coaches have also participated in the games as athletes, giving them a sense of what the young kids are up against.
“It helps them out a lot in understanding what to expect and communicate that with the kids,” Winkler said.
Some on Team Colorado are repeat athletes, and this year they hope to add to their competitive experiences. Four athletes on the current U19 women’s basketball team participated in the last games three years ago. Those members ended up playing on the U19 team because the U16 team did not have enough members, and that team still came close to medaling, said current U19 coach Britteny Whiteman.
“I have pretty high expectations for them because most of them have already competed there,” Whiteman said. “They know what the games are about. They know what to expect. We’ll have that type of leadership with the majority of the girls who are playing.”
Coaches also have high hopes for the U14 girls’ basketball team. Four members from the team played together in a tournament in Salt Lake City last summer, and they won four tournaments this summer.
Most of the girls have also spent time this summer playing with their high school teams.
“Some of the other teams that are going up there don’t really have the experience playing that these girls do,” said head coach Chris Valdez.
“If you were looking at it in that aspect, this team would have one of the best chances of maybe coming out of there with a medal.”
Competition isn’t the only experience of the games. There will be three villages that will showcase the cultures and traditions of participating tribes. One village will be located at Six Nations, the host tribe of the games, and will specifically cater to their culture. The other two will be featured at McMasters and York universities and will feature exhibits from various participating tribes.
“For our athletes, it’s a chance to get to know and find out more about their brothers and sisters from all over,” Winkler said.
“That part is really huge.”
Athletes pay an entry fee of $220 to participate in the games, which provides room and board and transportation throughout the week.
Athletes are required to pay for their own travel and uniforms, but the tribes help out where they can, Winkler said.
KSUT Tribal Radio and will provide Facebook Live videos and updates via the radio’s Facebook page.