Sunday July 10, 2016

Basketball is culture in coastal B.C. First Nations communities

The gymnasium in Bella Bella, B.C.

The gymnasium in Bella Bella, B.C. (Trevor Jang)

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By Trevor Jang

In the remote community of Bella Bella, B.C the basketball court is open as often as the village's only grocery store.

Open gym nights are community gatherings. The youth practice against youth, then they idolize the adults. It's a year-long training regime to prepare the Heiltsuk Nation's four teams for the annual All-Native Basketball Tournament that runs each February in Prince Rupert.

I travelled to Bella Bella to cover the story of Josiah Wilson, who was banned from the tournament this year because he doesn't have at least 1/8th First Nations ancestry. He is Haitian by blood but was legally adopted by a Heiltsuk First Nations father and a white mother.

I came here to learn more about traditional laws around adoption and Heiltsuk culture in general. I wanted to find out what makes Josiah Heiltsuk.

"He grew up with us. He did everything that another child did in this community," said Gary Housty, one of the Heiltsuk Hereditary Chiefs, or Hemas, who witnessed the cultural adoption of Wilson.

Josiah and don

Don Wilson says his son was discriminated against based on race, family status, colour and place of origin. (Trevor Jang)

Housty says it's important for him to play at the tournament because it's about more than basketball — the All-Native is about culture.

"It's about friendship, longtime friendship. It's about trading. In different areas up north they don't get the seafood that we harvest. We don't get some of the stuff that they get," he explained.  

"The people that leave here, to go to an All-Native Tournament, they are naturally going into a cultural event. It's not all about basketball but basketball is very important to our community."

Housty used to play in his younger days. Now he goes up to watch and visit with elders from other villages. 

"I grew up watching it. I've read stories upon it going all the way back to the '50s," said Howie Duncan, one of Wilson's teammates on the Heiltsuk Wolfpack intermediate team.

Duncan said he watched his uncle compete in the tournament, winning a championship in all three of the men's divisions. He compared the experience to a child learning to hunt or fish by watching the elder generations.

"Basketball is our culture, same with the culture that we have in our traditions," said Duncan.

I had made the mistake of waiting until the last minute to book accommodations for my trip to Bella Bella, and all of the cabins were taken. Although my logistical procrastination had gotten the best of me, anytime you visit a First Nations reserve there will always be somebody's aunt willing to house and feed you.

"I've been attending that tournament for a couple decades in my lifetime (and) played in it," said Pamela Wilson, Josiah Wilson's aunt and a band councillor in the community. "And I had no idea that the rules were based on blood quantum," she added, bringing up her nephew's disqualification from the tournament.

She said Josiah Wilson spent his summers here and even worked as a youth worker.

I'm not the one to determine if Josiah Wilson is Heiltsuk or not. I was just here asking the questions. But what I can say is he is remembered fondly here. He is accepted here. And he is loved here.