The summer of 1990 changed Waneek Horn-Miller's life forever.

Just 14 years old at the time, she went from the frontlines of competition at the first-ever North American Indigenous Games [NAIG] in Edmonton, to the frontlines of resistance during the Oka Crisis just days later.

"I think to myself, what would people like me have done after the Oka Crisis if I hadn't had sport? I can tell you what they did and I would have done what a lot of people ended up doing. Self-medicating through other means to deal with my PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] in unhealthy ways," Horn-Miller said.

"Instead, I ended up channeling it through my sporting career."

A Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que, Horn-Miller was a prolific swimmer and runner at a young age. She knew early on she had the ability to compete at the highest level in sport. That was reaffirmed when she walked into the first NAIG in Edmonton all those years ago.

"It was the only time in my whole career that I looked down the blocks and it was all Native people, people who looked like me. And that was special to me."

And while that first international event was inspiring and empowering for so many reasons, Horn-Miller got a rude awakening less than a week from returning home from Edmonton.

In the summer of 1990 the town of Oka, Que., planned to expand a golf course without consultation onto a piece of land the locals call The Pines. The land is sacred to the Mohawk, who were opposed to the expansion because it is where their people are buried.

Horn-Miller was tasked with cooking midnight meals and breakfast to take to the warriors who were in the bunkers. Seventy eight days later, the stand-off ended at the Kanesatake Treatment Centre. It's also the day Horn-Miller was stabbed in the chest by a soldier's bayonet while carrying her four-year-old sister, Keniehtiio Horn, to safety.

"I don't really remember it as one continuous memory," Horn-Miller said. "I remember what I felt like. I felt like my mind, spirit, soul, body was going to explode. There was so much rage, fear and sadness."

The doctor who treated Horn-Miller said had the bayonet been a centimetre either way it would have gone into her heart and she wouldn't have survived.


Horn-Miller, centre, holds on to her 4-year-old sister as chaos breaks out during the 78-day siege of the Oka Crisis in 1990. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Sport as medicine

The trauma from that event haunted Horn-Miller through her teens but the one thing keeping her motivated were sports. She excelled at water polo and her mother knew it.

"She put her life on hold," Horn-Miller recalls. "I remember we moved from the reserve to Ottawa and we had a two-bedroom apartment there. She rented out both bedrooms and we slept on the couch. With that extra money she bought us a membership at the Y."


Horn-Miller's work with the National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is deeply personal. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

Horn-Miller was honing her skills at NAIG competitions throughout the 90s as both an athlete and a coach. Then in the summer of 2000, 10 years after Oka, Horn-Miller walked into the Olympic opening ceremony as co-captain of Team Canada's water polo team.

"I knew I was being watched by my nieces and nephews and so many other people who were younger than me," Horn-Miller said.

"And my little sister, I love her so much, she was one of the reasons why I never succumbed to those really dark moments in my teens when I was struggling. If I gave up and quit and gave in, I was showing her show to give up and give in. And I loved her too much that I wanted to show them how to persevere."

NAIG gives Indigenous youth purpose

Horn-Miller is now a part of the National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as the director of community engagement. She says this work is so deeply personal. And while Horn-Miller hears stories of tragedy she reflects on her life and what sport has meant to overcome pain.

"Sport in Indigenous communities is not a pastime, it's not something you do on the side to teach co-ordination," she said. "It saves people's lives and gives people focus and teaches people stress management skills. That's what sport was for me, how I dealt with stress."

That's why Horn-Miller understands why the Games in Toronto could have a profound impact not just for Indigenous youth across Turtle Island, but for Canadians in general.

"When I hear stories, and situations for our women and girls I think what if we had sport co-ordinated in an accessible way. It would mean youth had other ways to get their stress out."

More than anything, Horn-Miller describes the Games as a feeling of "coming home." She says every time she competed or coached at NAIG she renewed her spirit and purpose.  Now, she can't emphasize enough the role the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto can play in healing a broken past. Horn-Miller said it starts with the athlete's performing to their great abilities.

"We need that right now. We need all of them to be their most powerful, positive and beautiful," Horn-Miller said.

"Not only do we need to show Canadians but each other and those kids looking up to them too. The only way the younger generation will believe they can do this is if you show them you're doing it."