Undefeated Piysew Awasis Thunder volleyball team credits cultural teachings for provincial win

While most teams begin the year with warm-ups, drills and exercises, the Piysew Awasis Thunder's season began with a wilderness survival camp.

Most teams begin the season with drills, Piysew Awasis Thunder began with a survival camp

Piysew Awasis Thunder boys 1A volleyball team: (in front) Dominic Campbell-Jimmy and Jasper Standingwater, (from left) Askiy Walkingbear, Coach Skylar Walkingbear, Mark Lewis, Ryzen River Walkingbear, Storm Wapass, Wind Wapass, Cory Thunderchild, Magic Wapass, Tristin McKay, Coach Winston Walkingbear. (Submitted by Skylar Walkingbear)

Their volleyball record this year is 53-0 and they are the 2018 Saskatchewan 1A boys volleyball champions.

But for the Piysew Awasis Thunder senior boys volleyball team from Thunderchild First Nation, about 250 km northwest of Saskatoon, playing the game is only a part of what they're about.

While most teams begin the year with warm-ups, drills and exercises, the Piysew Awasis Thunder season began with a Cree cultural camp. Their aim is balancing sports and culture.

"We started up with wilderness survival camp," said Winston Walkingbear, head coach of the Piysew Awasis Thunder.

"We did a lot of land-based training and cultural activities: hunting, fishing, snaring, running, and climbing. It was all about reconnecting with the land and learning those skill sets not only as an individual, but as athletes representing our nation and school."

Teaching life skills 

Instilling traditional life skills in his players is something Walkingbear said not only grounds the players, but helps the athletes become positive role models and keeps them away from negative aspects of teenage life.

Walkingbear said land-based knowledge is a huge part of his life that he inherited from his own father, who was a veteran who served in the Second World War, and was present on D-Day.

The team participated in a survival camp at the beginning of the season to build teamwork and give them knowledge of their traditional lands. (Submitted by Winston Walkingbear )

"He taught us that young warriors need to know the land and know how to survive. This prepares them for a livelihood or post-secondary career they want to pursue."

Walkingbear's background is teaching, and he helped co-ordinate the Bold Eagle program, an Indigenous-based military program that offers students survival, life and military skills, for a time in the early 1990s.

Walkingbear has seven children, two of whom have been recruited into college volleyball. His two youngest are following in their footsteps by attending the same college next fall.

"The survival camp was really enjoyable," said Ryzen River Walkingbear, a player on the team and Winston's youngest son.

We always go to sweats and feasts. That's just part of our lives.- Ryzen  Walkingbear  

"It's all about balancing both life and culture, and going back to who we are and where we come from by reconnecting with the land."

Ryzen credits his and his brothers' accomplishment in the sports world to the help of his parents and the cultural knowledge they receive from their community.

"We always do pipe ceremonies. We always go to sweats and feasts. That's just part of our lives."

He said it's the love of the game that keeps him motivated and that he's excited about the next step of his volleyball journey.

"It doesn't take big city teams to compete at a high level," he said. "With the right training and mindset, you can compete at any level."

Win dedicated to fan 

The team dedicated their latest championship game to a community member who has followed their season and is dealing with terminal cancer.

Learning how to dry meat was one of the activities the team participated in during a cultural camp. (Submitted by Winston Walkingbear )

"I am so proud of them," said fan Calvin Noon.

"I was honoured when they told me they dedicated their win to me. I got emotional, but they did all the work. It was a great feeling to know."

Winston Walkingbear said teaching the team to have empathy is all a part of the traditional Cree teaching passed on to him by his own father.

Thunderchild First Nation will hold a feast and celebration in the next week for the team. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations will also honour them at the next chiefs' assembly for their contribution to their community and their sport.

About the Author

Penny Smoke


Penny Smoke is Cree/Saulteaux and was born and raised in Saskatchewan on the Treaty 4 territory. She currently works with CBC Saskatchewan and has spent time with CBC Indigenous, CBC Storytelling Project as a reporter and as an associate producer with CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition.