Fancy shawl dancer to showcase talent with Toronto Raptors basketball team

Kyana Kingbird, a fancy shawl dancer from Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) First Nation in New Brunswick, has been chosen for a creative mentorship program with the Toronto Raptors. 

'I want every rez kid to know that they can,' Kyana Kingbird says

Kyana Kingbird says she started fancy shawl dancing in Minnesota when she lived there as a child. (Jason Pelley )

A fancy shawl dancer from Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) First Nation in New Brunswick has been chosen for a creative mentorship program with the Toronto Raptors. 

Kyana Kingbird, 29, who is Mi'kmaw and Ojibway, will be part of the NBA team's Welcome Toronto creators program, now in its second year. The program's aim is to spotlight emerging Black, Indigenous, non-binary, female or artists of colour, motivate youth, and to give basketball a further reach in Canada. 

Kingbird, who has been a dancer since she could walk, was one of three finalists chosen out of over 400 applicants.

"I want every rez kid to know that they can," she said. 

"It's hard when you grow up on the rez and you feel like, you know, there's so much stacked against you, and you feel like success is so much farther out of your reach than other kids. I just want them to know it's not." 

Each artist will have the opportunity to work with the Toronto Raptors' creative resources team, and showcase their talents on the team's social media platforms and during a broadcast game. 

Applicants were asked to create a project that encompasses the 2021/2022 city jersey theme of "Moments Mixtape, Timeless Memories," inspired by the City of Toronto and how basketball collides with culture.

Kingbird says she was surprised to be chosen as a finalist. (Jason Pelley)

Kingbird said she is familiar with Toronto as she has been on the Ontario powwow trail often and has family and friends in the city. 

"I really just applied because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone, try something different," Kingbird said. 

Kingbird said one of the concepts she brought forward in her application was how dance is an integral part of many Indigenous people's lives, and it's a sport just like basketball.

"They're both ways how Indigenous people have really grasped onto healing and connecting with ourselves, and being healthy and active," she said. 

Pursuing a career in dance

Kingbird has a college diploma and a bachelor of applied arts in criminal justice as well as a bachelor of arts in criminology, but is pursuing fancy shawl dancing full time. She takes contracts for work within her community and volunteers on several boards, but her focus now is a career in dance.

She said her nine-year-old daughter's favourite basketball team is the Toronto Raptors, so her home has been full of excitement since they found out about her win on Monday. 

A close friend said she was overjoyed when she found out Kingbird was a finalist. 

"I think it's absolutely incredible," said Mandy Richard from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in northern Ontario. 

The two friends met when they attended university in New Brunswick. They keep in touch and visit when they can. 

"She is so down-to-earth, and she always wants to do her best and to show others, 'If I can do it, you can do it,'" she said. 

Spoken word poet Hannah Flores, one of last year's program winners, said her advice for the new finalists is to be as present as you can throughout the process, especially at the Welcome Toronto game where their art will be shared. 

"Really enjoy the moment," Flores said. 

"Don't let the commotion and the process itself distract you from your art and your craft."

She said the mentorship and professional development was beneficial for her as an emerging artist. 


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.