It's a dream that's been 40 years in the making — the vision of Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild to bring together Indigenous athletes from around the world.
Now, the World Indigenous Nations Games (WIN Games) have come alive, with athletes from 14 different countries descending upon Littlechild's home community of Ermineskin Cree Nation, the Ecoch Cree Nation and Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation.
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"It's been a very emotional time for me," said Littlechild. "Over the years we've tried many, many, many times to host the games…. We were met with a lot of resistance."
Littlechild recalled making the first resolution back in the summer of 1977 to the United Nations in Sweden, proposing to create an Indigenous world games based on the Olympic model. He wanted to make sure the cultural component of Indigenous traditions was included. But the idea took decades to come to fruition.
In 1967, Littlechild graduated with a bachelor of physical education degree and went on to earn a master's degree in physical education from the University of Alberta.
Being an exceptional athlete himself, Littlechild won more than 50 provincial, regional, national and international championships. He has been inducted into seven sports halls of fame.
Playing hockey and competing in swimming as a young man were activities that Littlechild said helped keep him on track.
In 1976, he made history by becoming the first treaty Indian from Alberta to obtain a law degree from the University of Alberta. He is a respected lawyer that has carried his trade into advocacy work at the United Nations.
While proposing the WIN Games at the UN level, Littlechild helped establish the North American Indigenous Games in 1990, held in Edmonton.
"Once we developed regionally, we were ready for the world games. But again, I had hoped that they would be in Canada first, since the genesis of the idea was here," he said.
"But we couldn't do it," he added, citing financial and logistical restraints and a lack of support from corporate and government sponsors.
"So it's been sometimes saddening to witness the resistance to the celebration, but at the same time it's one of encouragement and it's one of happiness to see that we're actually going to do it now. But I think sometimes when we're challenged like we were — I think when you have that kind of challenge, the flip side of that is motivation to say, 'No, we're going to do it and we will do it.'"
The first WIN Games were held in Palmas, Brazil, two years ago and featured over 2,000 Indigenous athletes competing in various sporting events over 10 days.
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Littlechild traveled to Brazil as part of the executive organizing team and mapped out a vision for the next round to be held in Alberta.
He believes that sports and culture are intertwined with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
"Article 31 calls on the world to recognize that cultural manifestation includes traditional games and sports. That wording is specifically there," he said.
"It's also important to acknowledge that we have now a right. We have a right to play, we have a right to culture, we have a right to be happy, and we have the right to express that through traditional games and sport. It's our expression being lived out."
Focus on reconciliation
One of the main themes of the games is a focus on reconciliation. Reconciliation is especially close to Littlechild's heart and spirit after spending time as a commissioner with the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"With the games we can motivate our people to reclaim culture, reclaim language, and to experience the pride of who we are," he said.
"We have a positive way forward and a good future that we're walking into — a message that these games will help provide healing in our community, which is an important step in reconciliation."
At the WIN Games, spectators will be treated to demonstrations of Indigenous culture from around the world, the likes of which may not been seen in this territory again.
Littlechild invites people of all backgrounds to come out and see the action. Even if some may be hesitant to go right into the reserve, he assures everyone is welcome.
"Our community is very rich in different ways. Yes, we have challenges and I think we're not trying to hide the challenges. That's why I think it's important for people to come to our territory. Come and see the poor housing, come and see the poverty, come and see the challenges we face with violence. But this is a counter to that," he said.
"This lifts up. We may be poor in some ways, but we're rich in other ways, and one of the ways we're rich is through our culture and ceremony."