North American Indigenous Games

Indigenous Games: Akwesasne athlete inspires women by breaking barriers

Akwesasne athlete Kawehnokwiio Bailey Thomas grew up playing hockey on a male-dominated squad and was a victim of bullying simply because she was a girl. However, the volleyball player never let that become an excuse or get in the way of her development.

'People that put you down are afraid of what you’re capable of,’ says Kawehnokwiio Bailey Thomas

Kawehnokwiio Bailey Thomas, second from left, says her family made a lot of sacrifices to allow her to play hockey with boys. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

Kawehnokwiio Bailey Thomas buried her face in her jersey as tears came down the side of her face.

She and team Eastern Door and the North (EDN) fell in straight sets to team Newfoundland and Labrador to finish 10th in the U19 female volleyball competition at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).

But for the 18-year-old Thomas, she was playing for more than just a placing.

The captain of team EDN wanted to set an example for many aspiring, young female athletes.

Thomas grew up playing hockey on a male-dominated squad and was a victim of bullying simply because she was a girl.

As hard as those times were, the Akwesasne athlete never let that become an excuse or get in the way of her development in the sport.

"People that are trying to put you down are just afraid of what you can do or what you're capable of. I'm always trying to be the best, not that I can, but trying to be the best out there," Thomas said.

"At the end of the game, you don't want to say, 'I played kind of weak because I was playing against boys.' You want to say, 'I played better than the boys.'

Thomas is a multi-talented athlete. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

'This is their Olympics'

This wasn't just the end of Thomas' NAIG career, it may possibly be the highest level of competition she'll ever play in.

While her mother swam for Canada at the junior Olympics, Thomas said that competing in an Olympic Games is a little "far-fetched." 

Her grandmother and volleyball coach, Kahnastatsi Nancy Jacobs, echoes that statement.

"Overall, if you think about it, for Aboriginal people this is their Olympics. We get to showcase our skills, our culture, and not only make new friends [but also] make our nation's more stronger just by knowing each other," Jacobs said.

Jacobs adds NAIG is also one of the few national showcases that let's the world know that a strong Indigenous community still exists.

Many of the volunteers she spoke with were shocked to learn that more than 5,000 athletes were competing at these 2017 Games.

As team captain in the past two NAIG's, Thomas, left, has improved her leadership skills. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

Role model

With her competition over, Thomas takes her lessons learned from the volleyball court back to the ice rink as she directs her attention back towards hockey.

She said that her role as team captain in the past two Indigenous Games have helped her leadership and communication skills.

This past year, Thomas played junior hockey - the highest level for her age group - and plans to do so again this fall in hopes of earning a scholarship to a Division I school south of the border.

Thomas said she looks up to Brooke Stacey, an old teammate of hers with team EDN and from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake.

Stacey is entering her senior year at the University of Maine, where she plays collegiate hockey.

She was also a member of Canada's gold-medal winning team at the IIHF U18 ice hockey women's world championship in 2014.

Plenty of sacrifices

Thomas hopes to follow a similar path but knows she wouldn't even be in such a position if it wasn't for the people she loves the most.

Her family got her into sports at the age of three and from that point on, Thomas developed a passion for sports and a competitive fire.

The Games have brought a sense of unity amongst the Indigenous community. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

Their sacrifices allowed their daughter to play the game she loves and that's never been lost on Thomas.

"Two years ago, I played on a team that was an hour and a half away and we had three-four practices a week. We'd have to leave right after school and we'd get back at midnight sometimes," said Thomas.

"I wouldn't have time to do anything else but school and hockey. So that was a really big commitment that my parents and I had to take."

About the Author

Chicco Nacion returns to his birthplace of Toronto after growing up in Niagara Falls. He graduated from the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @chicco_n