Indigenous games 2023

Finding Community in Culture

By Chris Rui Fernandes

I first learned about the North American Indigenous Games (NAIGs) following a course on Indigenous cultural awareness, I felt a deep desire to learn more and to become a better ally. The NAIG is a celebration that takes place every four years in Nova Scotia, Canada. The games include competitions in 16 sports and bring together more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and team staff from more than 750 Indigenous Nations. The goal of the games is to celebrate, share, and reconnect Indigenous Nations through sports. It’s an event that honours Indigenous culture and brings together the community in a way that draws attention to the collective potential of our bodies, minds and spirits.

It just so happens that the tenth NAIGs are happening this year. Our team in Halifax recognized the opportunity to get involved and engage with the Indigenous community. Eager to contribute, I contacted the NAIG organizers to offer my skills and expertise. I also mentioned that within my company, there were several like-minded individuals who would love to support the event in some capacity.

Volunteering for the North American Indigenous Games

For me, the decision was simple. Participating in the games would allow me to use my experience to support this incredible event, expand my knowledge of local Indigenous cultures and indulge in one of my greatest passions—sports. It seemed like a perfect trifecta.

However, things soon became more complicated. As an immigrant in Canada, my goal had always been to "fit in.” I believed that any indication of my immigrant background was a weakness, so I consciously suppressed parts of my identity to conform to my surroundings. Looking back, I somewhat regret this choice, simply because it was a choice I had the privilege to make.

As I listened to stories shared by the NAIG cultural team (many of whom are Indigenous), and witnessed the tremendous effort they put into training volunteers, I felt a profound sense of shame. Indigenous volunteers and their elders recounted how they were forced to conform and to abandon elements of their true selves at the direction of others. While they fought to preserve their culture, language and beliefs, I had spent years trying to distance myself from my own heritage.

Personal and professional growth

What started as a well-intentioned opportunity to give back to the community and take part in an event that piqued my interest has evolved into something far more significant for me. It’s given me a unique chance to immerse myself in a rich and diverse culture – one that I knew almost nothing about prior to moving to Canada in 2006 and never fully understood the significance of, even after living here for many years. In addition, volunteering in the NAIG has prompted me to seek connections with my own history, culture and background. I am now eager to engage with my own elders and listen to their stories, which I have learned is critical to the preservation and safeguarding of our shared heritage.

Beyond personal growth, this experience has granted me the privilege of contributing to the planning and preparation of an event that brings joy, happiness and a profound sense of pride to countless Indigenous individuals who may otherwise feel overlooked or undervalued. I am preparing myself for the overwhelming emotions that will undoubtedly arise from witnessing the athletes, their families and the elders, as their smiles, laughter, triumphs and possibly even tears shine freely throughout this week-long celebration.

By improving my understanding and connection to Indigenous culture, I hope to support and honor the resilience and strength of a community that has faced significant challenges yet continues to thrive.

The North American Indigenous Games are happening from July 15-23 in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, Millbrook First Nation, Sipekne’katik.