British Columbia

'I had an identity issue': Basketball connects urban Indigenous player with his roots

Helping his Nisga'a team win a basketball championship is a victory for Gene Wolff. But connecting to his home First Nation in northern B.C. is an even bigger win.

Gene Wolff didn't understand his Nisga'a heritage until he joined their team

Gitlaxt'aamiks Gitmidiik Masters were crowned division champions after beating Hydaburg 67-66 at the All Native Basketball Tournament on Feb. 15. Gene Wolff, Number 8, scored 28 points to help clinch the championship. (Gene Wolff/Facebook)

It was a surreal moment for Gene Wolff in the championship game of the men's masters division of the 2020 All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert on B.C.'s North Coast.

In the game's dying seconds, Wolff and the Gitlaxt'aamiks Gitmidiik Masters were down 66-64 to perennial champs Hydaburg. With two seconds left, Gene watched as his brother Richard scored a three-point shot putting Gitmidiik up 67-66, winning the game and the 2020 championship.

The moment was surreal because, for Wolff, playing basketball isn't only about winning a championship. It's also how the 39-year-old urban Indigenous man learned to connect with his home First Nation in Northern B.C. Considering he knew very little about Indigenous traditions until his late teens, connecting through basketball to his identity as a Nisga'a citizen has been an even bigger victory.

"I embrace my Nisga'a family and heritage [today], but I didn't grow up with that," said Wolff who was raised in East Vancouver. "I had an identity issue. I didn't even know what being Indigenous was."

Gene Wolff says he often waited for his mother in Pigeon Park at Hastings and Carrall streets on the Downtown Eastside when he was a child. The Survivors Totem Pole, pictured, was raised in the park in 2016 . (CBC)

Pigeon Park

Wolff and his older brother Richard are Nisga'a by birth, but were raised in East Vancouver by their late mother Beverly Guno. Gene describes his childhood as being filled with his mothers addictions, an absentee father and soul-crushing poverty. "Quite often we didn't even have food in our fridge," he said.

While Nisga'a people live in four villages with traditional territories, Wolff says he and his brother lived in Pandora Park, Hastings and Nanaimo, Mount Pleasant then on Franklin Street. "The cornerstones of East Van," he said.

Brothers Gene, right, and Richard Wolff are Nisga'a by birth but grew up in East Vancouver. The pair played basketball for their home nation's team the Gitlaxt'aamiks Gitmidiik Masters at the 2020 All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert, B.C., from February 10 to 16. (Gene Wolff/ Facebook)

Wolff remembers his mother leaving him and his brother with other Indigenous children at Pigeon Park on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, while she and other parents tended to their addictions nearby.

"The adversity is part of who I am. It's part of my foundation and my life's story," he said.

Gene Wolff says the adversity he experienced in his early life made him into who he is today, including striving to be the good father to his six-year-old son. (Gene Wolff/Facebook)

Discovering his roots

Wolff started playing basketball at age nine. His heroes included Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan. He couldn't afford to play on teams or development camps, so he honed his skills and passion for the game on the cement playground courts of East Vancouver.

Gitlaxt'aamiks Gitmidiik Masters player Richard Wolff's game winning shot that sealed his team's 67-66 victory over Hydaburg at the All Native Basketball Tournament on Saturday in Prince Rupert.

Watch player Richard Wolff's game winning shot at the All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert:

By age 15 he was a highly skilled player who was on the rise in high school. All the while, he never had a connection with his identity as an Indigenous person. Compounding this was an undercurrent of contempt for Indigenous people that Wolff says was prevalent at the time. "We weren't liked, Indigenous people. Being native — everybody hated us. So I had an identity issue," he said. 

Wolff discovered the Indigenous basketball tournament circuit when he was about 18, meeting players from Nisga'a communities and playing on their teams. They got a stellar guard; he found the identity he'd never known.

'That's when I developed a real bond with being Indigenous and the strong connection Indigenous people have to sports," he said. "Basketball is an important, prideful part of being Indigenous."

Crushing the cycles

Wolff scored 28 points including seven three-point shots in the championship game and was named player of the game. But he never mentioned this on his Facebook page just hours later. Instead, he thanked Nisga'a fans for their support, saying that the win was a team effort.

Wolff bid his team goodbye on Sunday and returned to his life in Vancouver, which includes raising his six-year-old son who watched him play at the tournament.

"Everything that I've worked hard for is about being a good father," he said. "It's helped me crush the cycles that have plagued Indigenous people."

About the Author

Wawmeesh Hamilton is an associate producer with CBC Vancouver’s Urban Nations, which covers the news of urban Indigenous people in Metro Vancouver and in towns across B.C. His work about Indigenous people and reconciliation has also been published on CBC Radio, CBC Online and CBC Indigenous. The two-time Webster Award nominee graduated from the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in 2016. Wawmeesh lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.