Cover Story: Indigenous women basketball players will have their might tested at a world tournament this month in Vancouver
Queens of the court
Vyna Brown remembers being nine years old and heading to the All Native Basketball tournament in Prince Rupert. She was there with her dad, who was playing in the men’s league—but that didn’t stop her from making a beeline for the women’s courts, armed with homemade pom poms to cheer on the women ballers from her village of Bella Bella.
Almost 20 years later, as a member of the Heiltsuk Women’s Basketball Team, she would win the championship at the same tournament. This time, however, the women she had watched as a child were in the stands, there to support the next generation of players.
“I hugged them and I thanked them, because it was just as much their championship. And they had tears in their eyes too.”
This August, her team will compete at the second-ever World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, as host nation for a newly launched women’s division.
Brown lives in Bellingham, Washington, but grew up in Bella Bella on Campbell Island in the central coast region of B.C., a small fishing village with a population of about 1,700. It’s also home of the Heiltsuk Nation. In her community, women’s basketball has been a unifying force.
World tournament spikes
The World Indigenous Basketball Challenge launched last year, hosted by the Haida Nation’s men’s team, the Skidegate Saints of Haida Gwaii.
Desmond Collinson, organizer of the event and player with the Saints, says adding a women’s division was a natural next step. At last year’s tournament, he began selling basketball gear emblazed with the term “Village Boy”—a term he uses to describe himself.
“I’m a stereotypical village boy, but the idea of that is that people identify themselves as who they are regardless of where they are,” he says. “People were like, what about village girl? But just to grow and move forward with the tournament, it was important for us to have a women’s division.”
The tournament, happening at UBC War Memorial Gym from Aug. 8 to 12, includes The Plains Lady Warriors from Alberta, Team Heiltsuk, All My Relations, and two teams from Australia— The Djookyaans Women’s Team, and the Australian Indigenous All Stars—as well as a high school girls all-star team.
This year, the men’s league has also expanded, hosting teams like Panama and the Kingdom of Hawaii.
His hope is that the tournament will not just be about top-notch basketball (many of the players play pro ball abroad, or at high-ranking universities in the States), but about cultural gathering and sharing—to advocate for social and environmental issues affecting Indigenous populations the world over, including confronting the legacy of colonialism.
The tournament will also feature cultural sharing performances and live music.
All My Relations
Team Vancouver, All My Relations, was formed 11 years ago in the Downtown Eastside. Ashlee Raphael, a power forward with the team, has ancestral roots in the Nlaka’pamux Nation, in B.C.’s Interior, but says her team’s players are from different nations, including Haida, Metis, Cree, and Blackfoot.
“We come together in Vancouver as a big city centre and we’ve made our own sisterhood and our own team,” she says. “We come together to support each other in the urban native setting.”
A youth worker, Raphael picked up a basketball when she was eight years old and has played since. She’s been with All My Relations for three years.
The teamwork extends beyond the court. The team spends time working in the Downtown Eastside—where many of the players were raised—putting on basketball camps for young people, working with elders, and hosting fundraisers. She says they try to involve young girls as much as possible.
“I know that for myself and for a lot of girls on the team, it’s helped us stay out of trouble. Being from where we’re from, and the rough neighbourhoods, and a lot of the stuff that’s happened in native families in the communities, like violence and addiction, basketball has really help steer us in the right direction to stay on the right path.”
Her team is looking forward to facing off against some international competition.
“It’s a really great opportunity for us girls,” Raphael says. “The opportunity and chance to play against some Indigenous women on the world stage is really awesome.”
Basketball in the community
Brown has been playing basketball since she was a seven-year-old growing up in Bella Bella, and started playing women’s ball when she was about 13.
“For a lot of the kids in the community, what do you do after school? You go to the hall, you play some basketball. You go home, the hall’s closed for an hour, you eat dinner, then you go back and play basketball.”
She says the sport was first introduced in the residential school system, and grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles brought it back after being forced to leave their homes. The community built a gym, and basketball has brought the community together since.
“We naturally, as a nation, like to gather and we have feasts and potlaches and what not,” she says.
When the Canadian Government lifted the potlatch ban in 1951, she says sport was a healing force in bringing the community together to revitalize their culture.
“Basketball for us became a time and a place where legally we were allowed to gather and kind of replicate what our ancestors had done through potlatching.”
Raphael’s played at the All Native Tournament in Prince Rupert for years, and describes it as a tournament where people represent their communities and foster pride.
Spending time on the court isn’t just about sport, she says, it’s political—and confronts Canada’s legacy of paternalism and non-inclusiveness of Indigenous women in sport.
“We have this crisis right now in Canada where Indigenous women—face the highest rate of women being violated, we have the murdered and missing women inquiry happening right now in Canada,” she says. “Keeping young Indigenous women active and involved and included is really important.”
She says it also helps revitalize a matriarchal culture that was interrupted by colonialism.
“Before, our women were active, we were food harvesters, we were right out there on the land with the men working physically, just as hard. You had to be active, you had to be in shape to live the lifestyle we lived,” she says. “I think for a while, and it wasn’t just indigenous women, but all women were not included in sports.”
The All Native Tournament got a women’s division in the 1990s, decades into its operation.
“Our women were playing basketball then. My granny, if she was still alive, would have been in her 90s, she played basketball. So it’s not like there wasn’t the interest. There just wasn’t the inclusion.”
She’s pleased the World Indigenous Challenge listened and grew to include women in its second year.
“I remember talking to Desi [tournament organizer] and I was like, ‘OK, where’s the women’s division?’ With the crises going on, with our women being scared for their lives or not feeling valued—where we should feel the value the most is in our own communities,” she says. “Where we’re safe, taken care of, seen as equals and just as valuable as men, whether it’s in sports, whether it’s in leadership, whether it’s in education, whatever area or field.”
She sees that message sent to young women through involvement on the court.
“When we won, our whole community was behind us, they were so supportive and proud of us, and we won every division. As a small village, we’ve won every division in the All Native,” she says. “It’s also a way for us to keep those nation-to-nation bonds that we’ve had established over the last 1,000 years, and I’ve heard it called like, competing on the basketball floor is like modern day warfare. Having that conflict but in a healthy way.”
She sees the All Native Tournament and the World Indigenous Basketball Challenge as opportunities to come together and talk about issues and similarities in the team’s communities.
Strength in numbers
“Hey, you don’t want a pipeline in your territory? We don’t either. We like our clean rivers and waters and ecosystems, and let’s talk about that. How can we work together, how can we collaborate?”
This tournament will be a chance to take those conversations global.
“I’m looking forward to meeting and playing against these international teams from Australia, because it’s not just about basketball, it’s about culture. And getting to know them, and having those side conversations and those visits where we talk about things that affect our communities. What’s the same? What’s different?”
Players on the Heiltsuk women’s team live all over B.C., about half in Bella Bella and the other half in places like Kitimat, Vancouver Island, Bella Coola, and Prince Rupert. Brown lives in Bellingham, Washington. But they all have ancestral roots and ties to Bella Bella.
Connecting across generations
The team’s coach and Vyna Brown’s aunt, Mary Brown, played on the team in her youth.
“I always felt like that was the missing link for our women’s teams, was that we didn’t have the generations connected,” explains Vyna. “Having her step in and be our coach and that role model and a mentor, and a lot of our auntie; having her come in and lead us was so valuable—a women’s coach for a women’s team.”
Brown sees Indigenous female basketball talent growing in Canada and the States, with more women playing collegiate-level ball.
“I think it’s coming from having that underdog mentality: we know that we have to work extra hard because we’re women, we’re motivated, we’re driven, and I see a lot of native women who have children and they’re still doing these things,” Brown says. “And that’s the other cool thing: our women bring their kids to practice, our women have a baby and then get right back into it. We have kids in the locker room with us all the time, we make it work.”
Brown sees women taking space on the basketball court as a sign of something bigger.
“We know that on a lot of levels, we know how disrupted our communities have become because of colonialism, and we’re re-matriarching ourselves,” she notes. “We’re taking our place back in our communities.”
“We’re going to resist, and continue this, and it’s important. I feel like that’s something women have always done, so even if we’re not included in a sport at the time we’re going to still play, we’re going to do it.”