Oneida runner racing to save his language from extinction

Evan John, 17, is a track and field champ who's been spending time off learning a language on the brink of being lost forever.

Athlete Evan John has been honing skills off the track to revive the Oneida language

Evan John, an Oneida of the Thames athlete, will compete in the North American Indigenous Games this year. He said he's going for gold. (Supplied by Evan John)

Back when he was 14, Evan John was content with a medal in each colour. At this year's North American Indigenous Games, he'll only be happy with gold.

Despite his success at the last Games in 2014, the 17-year-old long-distance jumper and sprinter started running because his uncle told him it was the only way to shine at lacrosse.

"I always wanted to play lacrosse. Growing up with it, it was the coolest sport," John recalled. His uncle — hall-of-famer Duane Jacobs, who played professional lacrosse for the Rochester Knighthawks — "always told me I had to run."

And run John did, attracting attention from school coaches. The 11th-grader now practices four times a week.

John, left, started running because his uncle (not pictured) warned him he'd never make it at lacrosse—his first love—if he wasn't quick on his feet. (Supplied by Evan John)

John still loves lacrosse, but said running has its own place in his life. "It's more individual. What I put into it is what I'm going to get out of it."

John's prowess comes at a cost. He notes that staying in shape takes focus and dedication, and he has to juggle time on the track with full-time studies.

He applies that determined attitude to learning, too. He's working on saving the Oneida language, which he says today has only about 55 fluent speakers left.

Renae Hill, executive director of the Can-Am Indian Friendship Centre in Windsor, Ont., called John "one of our success stories."

He's been taking Oneida language classes since 2014, Hill said, and even opens each meeting with a thanksgiving address.

"I like sharing my language. I'm proud of it," John said, noting that learning and passing on knowledge is the only way to ensure Oneida culture kept alive and well. 

As much as John wants to win this year's Games, he gives back, too. He works with kids in a high-school co-op placement, showing them that confidence leads to success. 

John won a medal in each colour at the last NAIG in 2014. This year, he's going for a more monochromatic look.

Like sharing his language, John believes teaching sports strengthens Oneida culture.

"It's a way of connecting to other people and Nations," he said. "That's how we used to settle disputes. If we needed more hunting grounds, say — if we got into a dispute over that ground — instead of going to war and hurting each other, a good game of lacrosse would fix that." 

The rules had to remain fair, "even though it was a brutal sport," he said, noting that it's humbling and inspiring to promote these values through sport. "That's the story I carry on."

For the Oneida Nation of the Thames, sports are a "medicine," explained John. "When I run, I run because I believe it's a gift from our Creator," he said.

"People use a sport to speak," said John, but also to help others speak. "Sport is my talent and I let it shine," he said.

"It's a whole different way to connect to people."