Sports aren’t just fun and games, they’re a deeper part of who we are and where we come from. Today’s conversation is about Indigenous sport and its connection to self-determination and cultural regeneration.
Miller is joined by Allan Downey, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Indigenous Studies at McMaster University and Janice Forsyth, Professor in Indigenous Land-Based Physical Culture and Wellness at the University of British Columbia.
Allan Downey is Dakelh, Nak’azdli Whut’en and an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Indigenous Studies at McMaster University.
He served as the Chair of the Indigenous Studies Program and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University from 2015 – 2018.
Author of “The Creator’s Game”, his current research focuses on the history of Indigenous ironworkers in New York City as a lens to view Indigenous self-determination and nationhood.
Allan Downey in the news
- How Mohawk ironworkers from Kahnawake helped build New York’s skyline - CBC
- Groundbreaking course focuses exclusively on Indigenous historians and their work - McMaster University
- In the News: Allan Downey on the use of lacrosse in residential schools - McMaster University
Janice Forsyth is a Professor in Indigenous Land-Based Physical Culture and Wellness at The University of British Columbia. She is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. Her work combines history and sociology to explore the relationship between sport and culture from Indigenous points of view. She focuses on the way organized sports have been used as tools for colonization, and how Indigenous people have taken up those same activities for cultural regeneration and survival.
She often works with governments and non-profit organizations to develop more and better opportunities for Indigenous people to engage in sport and physical activity.
Author of “Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport" - blue ribbon Winner of the 2021 North American Society for Sport History Book Award.
Janice Forsyth in the news
[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the president and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
[00:00:23] Sports aren’t just fun and games, they're a deeper part of who we are and where we come from. Today's conversation is about Indigenous sport and its connection to self-determination and cultural regeneration. I'm joined by Allan Downey, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Indigenous Studies at McMaster University and Janice Forsyth, Professor in Indigenous Land-based Physical Culture and Wellness at The University of British Columbia.
[00:00:53] I am a 47 year old man who plays sports and watches sports and isn't entirely capable to explain why. But if you asked me, I would probably say it takes me back to being a kid. And I'm wondering for both of you, and I'll start with you, Allan, with this question, what did sports mean to you as you were growing up, and what do you remember about how it shaped you.
[00:01:25] Allan Downey: Sport has been a critical part of my life, my entire life because I'm Dakelh from Nak’azdli Whut’en and the Lusilyoo Clan or Frog clan from Central British Columbia. My family's from Central British Columbia, and I actually grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, just outside of Toronto, Ontario, and growing up as an urban Indigenous youth, one of the things that sports gave me as an Indigenous youth was a connection to my Indigeneity, my sense of my sense of myself, and sense of my community.
[00:01:58] And the way in which that happened was I started playing Lacrosse. I started playing Lacrosse when I was 10 years old, and I always knew it was an Indigenous sport.
[00:02:07] It's well known within Lacrosse circles, sports circles, that Lacrosse is an Indigenous game. So as an Indigenous youth growing urban, Indigenous youth growing up in this environment, I gravitated towards that, I gravitated towards the connection that I, as an Indigenous person growing up in this urban environment, was connected to something Indigenous and something really important within our communities.
[00:02:34] And so that really, that was really important to me, uh, as a youth growing up and, and in shaping my identity and of course my connection to my community, my home community, and my continued connection to that, the teachings that my mother introduced to me were all really important in shaping my identity as an Indigenous person, but I really gravitated towards this Indigenous sport and hearing stories of Indigenous athletes and hearing stories of great Indigenous players, not only players, but teams and movements as I got older.
[00:03:08] And so it was an incredible journey that way to be able to connect with this Indigenous sport and this Indigenous game. I felt like it, it connected me to other Indigenous communities that I was growing up around, especially Six Nations and Akwesasne when I was younger.
[00:03:24] Gabriel Miller: Janice, how about you? What are your recollections of, of what sport meant to you when you were growing up?
[00:03:30] Janice Forsyth: I too grew up off reserve. My family on my mother's side is from Fisher River and Peguis, so they’re sister communities about two hours north of Winnipeg and at some point in time, my mother and my grandmother and then,
[00:03:45] the man who my mother eventually stayed with, the person I called my father, they decided that sport would be a good thing for me to be involved in. And, and I think that as a child you don't really have a choice, in terms of what you do, your interests are shaped by what you think your family or your caregivers or your community thinks you should do.
[00:04:07] Gabriel Miller: Mm-hmm.
[00:04:08] Janice Forsyth: And so they saved up their money, which was fairly incredible cause we were quite poor, and put me in what I would call a rich kids’ sport. So I did figure-skating for a while, horseback riding and ballet. I think the things that I took away from sport at a fairly young age, cause I, in a way I was quite self-aware, was the othering process, feeling out of place in these rich kids sports where the kids were primarily white.
[00:04:33] And so there I am playing and competing and learning alongside them, but also at the same time feeling very different and being in highly gendered sports where as I was, uh, growing up as a young woman feeling not quite like those sports were, for me, it wasn't my idea of appropriate femininity for myself, how I wanted to be as a young woman.
[00:04:56] Um, and I'm not sure exactly where those came from. It's often hard to pinpoint these things that you learn. So for me, I think my early experiences in sport were the places where my current thinking, my critical kind of skills in this lens that I bring to sport where it stems from. It wasn't always a celebration of sport.
[00:05:15] I think in fact from a very early age, it was always engaged in a different way, although I couldn't make sense of it when I was young.
[00:05:22] Gabriel Miller: Was studying sport and its relationship to Indigeneity, was that in your mind when you think back to it part of trying to exercise or determine for yourself how to express yourself in an athletic, uh, environment. Was it almost your own self-determination when it came to sport?
[00:05:42] Janice Forsyth: I think so. I think a lot of students who I see coming through the school system, including Indigenous students and they're always trying to find themselves and to bridge their understanding of life through what it is that they're studying.
[00:05:54] And still, it's not always about just getting a job. They really are searching for something bigger and searching for understanding. And when I look back at my own kind of academic journey, I see the same thing. Um, and it was challenging because when you're, when I was coming through university in the 1990s, there weren't a lot of opportunities to study sport.
[00:06:15] I was coming through history and historians didn't think that sport was a worthwhile subject area, and kinesiology was, there is just a budding growing interest in the sociocultural study of sport. So I'd always gravitated towards that, just trying to understand and make sense of my own life through sport.
[00:06:34] Cause it was such a formative part of me when I was going through high school. I was a much better athlete than I was a student. I probably spent more time doing sports than I did in class. And I do remember a good friend of mine saying at one point, if you just spent half as much time studying as you did doing sport, you'd be a great student.
[00:06:53] So it was a really important part of my own [...] and academic journey that I've, that I was always trying to make sense of and I do think that I'm really fortunate to, to be here in the sense of having a job where I can study this cause I didn't actually think it was possible when I was going through university.
[00:07:12] Gabriel Miller: You know it's really interesting to think about this process of going from doing something, being engaged in it, and then to deciding that you want to examine it and study it, and in, in your cases, make it part of your careers to reflect on what, um, can be learned from it. And especially interesting when it comes to something like sport where something that comes through in preparing for today's conversation is, we have this mixed relationship
[00:07:42] Where we are obsessed with it culturally in a lot of ways, a lot of time gets dedicated to it, and yet there's a sort of also a feeling like it's trivial, and I would imagine in an academic setting, part of the choice of studying that is also admitting to yourself that you're gonna have to overcome perhaps some of the skepticism that's existed in the past about really dedicating conversation and thought to this topic.
[00:08:07] Allan, that makes me think of your book, “The Creator's Game”, a history of Lacrosse, although I don't think that really does it justice in any way. I was just leafing through it again today, and the mix of genres that are in that book are really striking. What inspired you to write it?
[00:08:25] Allan Downey: I would say that the inspiration to write the book was Indigenous communities, like the Indigenous youth that I was working with.
[00:08:33] So I was really fortunate throughout my life to, to be able to play Lacrosse, but not only to be able to play it, but play it at a high level. So I had gone on a Lacrosse scholarship, I was drafted professionally. It was a big part of my life and I was doing a lot with Indigenous youth, working with Indigenous youth through Lacrosse camps, and as I went to grad school, started doing Lacrosse/history camps and they were really the inspiration for me to think about these stories and to think critically about these stories.
[00:09:01] My lived experience in the sport was really critical in shaping how I approach the sports stories that I heard. To come in, I really was interested and fascinated by the language or gaining the academic language to be able to kind of articulate the experiences I've gone through, whether it was racism or Indian performances where I played for non-Indigenous teams.
[00:09:28] And here I was experiencing this racism targeted towards other Indigenous athletes and other Indigenous teams. But then our coaches, whether it was coaches or my fellow teammates would be like, oh, Allan's a good Indian. Cause they knew I was vocally Indigenous and Allan's a good Indian and I didn't have the language to be able to articulate that experience.
[00:09:50] And that's one of the things, being in the academy and getting the training that I did in history enabled me to do, was to be able to articulate that type of, that language and to share those stories with people. And at the same time, I really don't see “The Creator's Game” as a sport book. And I know most people do see it as a sport book, and, and that's okay.
[00:10:09] I'm happy with that, but I'm more interested in my career's, been interested in looking at the history of nationhood, sovereignty and self-determination. I'm more interested in sharing stories of those three things. Of the Indigenous nationhood, of Indigenous sovereignty, of Indigenous self-determination using in the past sport as a vehicle.
[00:10:30] And now I've turned to a new topic outside of sport, looking at Indigenous iron workers. But once again, looking at that history of Indigenous nation sovereignty and self determination.
[00:10:40] Gabriel Miller: Let me stick with that theme of self-determination and nationhood and sovereignty with you, Allan, and then I'm gonna bring this back to Janice as well, because what, thinking about the conversation, I was struck by this idea of generation and regeneration.
[00:11:00] The idea of these, well, in this case, sports, but I think as you say, the similar dynamics would probably be perceived in all sorts of different areas of life where something is, can both be a tool of colonization and an expression of Indigeneity, and the process of sorting through how these things are going to contribute to someone's identity.
[00:11:25] So I wanted to ask you, you know, it sounds like quite a powerful experience as a kid in discovering Lacrosse and finding your place in it, and then I assume later learning that Lacrosse itself was used as, for lack of a better term, in my case, colonial, a form of colonial oppression or assimilation.
[00:11:48] As you learned about that, did it affect the way you felt about the game?
[00:11:52] Allan Downey: Yeah, certainly. I was inspired by the stories of Indigenous nationhood sovereignty and self-determination that I came across, which has shifted my, it's politically shifted me, where I consider myself an Indigenous sovereigntist. I focus on Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty.
[00:12:13] And so it inspired, the story of the game and the ways in which Indigenous peoples survived in spite of that colonialism and that target, targeted genocide of Indigenous peoples was really inspirational to see those stories and the ways in which Indigenous athletes created Lacrosse teams when they were banned and they were in the 1930s creating Lacrosse teams coming off a ban from the 1880s.
[00:12:41] That Canadianness, these kind of Canadian Lacrosse enthusiasts, sport enthusiasts more generally, took this game, appropriated it, which was essential and significant element of Indigenous cultures and epistemologies, and took it and reshaped it, and attempted to formulate a Canadian identity through the sport, a national identity.
[00:13:02] What ends up happening is, they end up banning Indigenous players from their own game, but it doesn't stop there. The incredible thing is that this idea that Lacrosse is a Canadian game becomes so powerful, so pervasive within the minds of Canadians, that they actually introduce it to residential schools to assimilate Indigenous youth.
[00:13:23] What I really loved about doing this research and writing this book was the story never ended there. Indigenous peoples have never been defined by their relationship or ability to play or not play with non-Indigenous Canadians in sport, and even that targeted colonialism like residential schools, although it's a big part of Indigenous lives.
[00:13:46] And what has happened and the genocide of Indigenous attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples. There are also spaces in which Indigenous communities have carved out and continue to carve out their, what Audra Simpson would call nested sovereignties. Their ability to remain independent, remain self-determining communities and nations despite all this.
[00:14:08] And so it was amazing to see the stories of, for instance, the Iroquois nationals start up in the 1980s and to have a Lacrosse team that represents the Haudenosaunee as a sovereign nation in an international competition. So to be able to tell those stories was just, it was incredible.
[00:14:24] The last thing I'll say about it is I don't want anyone to think that, that this project was done alone or that, I am just lucky to have the time and space to be able to share the Indigenous brilliance of these Indigenous communities and these knowledge holders. And so I, I really appreciated all their efforts and energies that they put into me in order to share these stories.
[00:14:50] Gabriel Miller: Janice you wrote a book titled, “Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport”. And it in that, and I think in your other work, you've also grappled with this complex relationship between sport, colonialism, self-determination. You often have people ask you about the first chapter of that book and about how sport relates to decolonization.
[00:15:23] Can you tell us a little bit about that?
[00:15:24] Janice Forsyth: Uh, I think it's important to preface that by saying, I do a lot of work in the non-profit sector too, outside the academy, and that informs the questions that I bring to the work that I do. So it's just, I like that interplay between what I learned in the academy and my relationships outside of the academy and what I will learn through that.
[00:15:41] And, and over the years I've come across many people that, including many Indigenous people who are, are really interested in this idea of undoing colonialism through sport. And it seems to be, what they want to do and what are the ways in which they see sport as a tool for what we might call decolonization.
[00:15:58] Even though I would argue that, um, we don't spend enough time in sport and physical activity talking about what that actually means conceptually and practically. And so it leads to a misidentification of what it is that people think they're doing.
[00:16:11] But generally, I think people are very interested in it and it’s interesting how they turn to that first chapter, which is an introduction to a historical overview of colonization of sport in Canada and Allan's work that addresses sport through the residential school systems, through policy and legislation, and sort of the different ways in which the government has taken up sport and used it for their own assimilation purposes.
[00:16:35] And then how Indigenous people are trying to reclaim that part of physical culture or trying to reclaim physical culture in an effort for them to advance their own political and social interests. And so the book itself [...] is interesting cause I think it's, and it attracts a lot of people to the book.
[00:16:53] And the book is really about the Tom Longboat Awards and not so much about Tom Longboat, but more broadly than that it’s, I think, uh, a good introduction to the history of colonization in Canada through the perspective of sport. And I think that's why people really like it. And I understand people think it's also written in an accessible manner, which is great for me because I don't know how Allan feels, but sometimes I really struggle trying to explain what it is that we're talking about in plain language.
[00:17:17] It's like trying to bridge two, two different languages. But you're, you're trying to maintain your credentials in the academy, but at the same time trying to talk to a popular audience. And that's not an easy thing to do.
[00:17:27] Gabriel Miller: I’m interested in whether the two of you can help me understand an idea that I've encountered a bit better, and I'll describe it as best as I can.
[00:17:37] I'll, I'll start with you, Janice, and then I'm gonna ask you a version of this question too, Allan. I've seen it suggested that part of what distinguishes, distinguishes Indigenous sport or the relationship between Indigenous peoples and sport traditionally has been that sport is part of their connection to the land.
[00:17:56] And that part of the complexity of what happens to sport in our society is that relationship can be, I think, concealed or even severed. Janice, can you just tell us a little bit in for you what the relationship between sport and the land is and where you see that relationship being affected by the way sport is exercised and the way it's operated in 21st century North America.
[00:18:29] Janice Forsyth: Sure. And you know I'm really glad you asked that question because I think, you know, when we have conversations about sport, we don't really clarify what we mean by sport. And so there, in one sense, there's Indigenous sport, which is sport that is derived from, at least in my view, sport that is derived from Indigenous culture and could be appropriated by, by non-Indigenous people for their own purposes, like Lacrosse would be an example.
[00:18:53] Um, another is Indigenous people in sport, which is Indigenous people getting involved in mainstream sports and mainstream sporting environments that they didn't control from the ground up. And that's a very different experience or from Indigenous sports per se. That's a different experience, and Allan talks about that in his book.
[00:19:13] And I think where the land fits in is relevant to both in the sense that Indigenous people have always had their sports and games. They have their own culture around sport. Like every culture in the world has their own sporting practices. It's not something that is unique to the British. They didn't bring sport over to us and then we discovered sport through them.
[00:19:33] Uh, every culture in the world has their own form of physical culture. It's just that Indigenous physical culture, Indigenous sporting traditions have been erased in many cases, forgotten and Indigenous people are trying to reclaim them and rebuild them, and their sports and games have always been attached to the land because that's where they stem from.
[00:19:52] And so the land has always been a part of Indigenous physical culture, which builds the connection between Indigenous people and the land between their identities, between their territories. The land is who they are and their physical culture, their sports help to reinforce that understanding. Whereas if you take a look at mainstream sports, when I'm talking to my students and I ask them, how does your involvement in basketball or hockey or whatever,
[00:20:23] how does it actually reinforce your connection to the land and your own cultural identity? And it's hard for them to answer because they, they can't really, because it is meant to reinforce that connection to the land. So one of the main differences between mainstream sporting environments and mainstream sports and Indigenous sports is that mainstream sports have no connection to the land.
[00:20:44] And so when the settlers came in and they were using sport as a tool for colonization, this is one of the ways in which sport was used as a tool to colonize them cause it removed them from their land for certain. Certainly people had fun doing it. It became an important part of their community, an important part of their health practices, an important part of their own understanding of socialization.
[00:21:07] But, because of that disconnection from the land, it's really difficult to, to build that. And so that's how there's one of the main differences between mainstream sports and Indigenous sports and where land fits in that complex.
[00:21:22] Gabriel Miller: And part of what's so interesting to me about what you're saying is that sport can also be a means of reconnecting or discovering or generating an Indigenous identity if you can connect to it and its, its roots in Indigenous culture.
[00:21:42] And so in Allan, turning to you on this, one of the things that really struck me in reading some of your work was, I may not get it quite right, but you've said, you said at some point in the “Creator's game.”
[00:21:59] It was picking up a lacrosse stick that that helped bring you back to your traditional Indigenous territory and community. What are your feelings about the connection between sport and place and land.
[00:22:16] Allan Downey: I think that sport can play an act of an important role in the revitalization of Indigenous communities in including our relationship with the land and lands, and this includes urban environments.
[00:22:27] I want people to be clear on that because there's a reciprocity between place and identity that takes place and that includes urban environments. So that's important to remember. But all of my work and everything I attempt to do, I consider a resurgent history where there's this theory within Indigenous studies by incredible knowledge holders and theorists and academics, particularly Leanne Simpson.
[00:22:52] And it actually stems from an individual named John Mohawk that argues for, for resurgence to take place. That is, rather than focusing on the colonial outside, we should be focusing on the Indigenous inside and, I think that sport and history in general can be a resurgent practice, that this actually can take place in which we use sport within Indigenous communities to play a role in this revitalization of Indigenous governance, Indigenous laws, Indigenous languages, Indigenous sovereignty, and self-determination.
[00:23:28] And we've seen that happen and we've seen that take place, and that includes our identities and connections with the lands that we stem from that are ours. And so a lot of my work has been what I classify this idea of a resurgent history, or I hope it is, I hope it contributes to this idea of a resurgent history.
[00:23:48] And there are many others doing that. Janice's work has done that as well as in in history, just more generally, Brittany Luby, Sarah Nickel, a few others, quite a few others, Indigenous scholars that are using history and storytelling as a way to be a resurgent practice. That if we know these histories, if we tell these stories, they might be able to contribute to that revitalization of Indigenous communities, of Indigenous sovereignty, of Indigenous self-determination of our Indigenous governance systems, of our Indigenous laws, and our Indigenous relationship with our lands.
[00:24:24] So I, I think sport has a really important role and an active role and can contribute to this.
[00:24:31] Gabriel Miller: Janice, one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was about a state around this conversation, and I think a lot of Canadians, when they think back over the past 12 months in sports, part of what they'll think of is the issues surrounding hockey in this country and the fact that behaviour and attitudes have continued to result in real harm, particularly to women around the sport.
[00:24:59] And I think there was a realization by some that we weren't as far ahead in addressing those issues as we might've liked to think we were. How do you, how would you describe the state of this discourse around sport and the history of sport, whether it's in academia or in our society more generally in terms of grappling with some of these issues?
[00:25:24] Are we behind? Are we, about where we were are in other parts of our society. How are you feeling about the dialogue around decolonization and sport, for instance?
[00:25:36] Janice Forsyth: That’s a great question. I think the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation kicked open the door for these conversations in a way that nothing else could have.
[00:25:45] Scholars like Allan and myself would've been working on these projects for sure, but I think in order to engage a wider audience to, to make them see the relevance of these conversations, our work alone could not have done that. And so the TRC brought sport into the public realm as an important discussion to have at decision-making tables.
[00:26:03] Just from my experience working in the nonprofit sector, it, it, we are not far enough along in those conversations, not nearly far enough. And that for me is a frustration and a bit of a disappointment too. When I take a look at what other sectors are doing, for instance, the education sector or maybe the health sector,
[00:26:20] and taking a look at the, the conversations that they're having within their own organizations and with other organizations and developing strategies that engage Indigenous people in meaningful ways in order to move something forward. And that by no means is perfect, but at least they're having the conversations and we are still waiting in sport and physical activity for similar dialogues.
[00:26:43] And this is a problem because again, if we take just the word “sport” as an example, and here in this little podcast we're making a distinction between, or at least we're trying to make a distinction between Indigenous sport and what that means and how it's from, how it's different from, and similar to Indigenous people in sport and what that means.
[00:27:02] Organizations don't even know enough to know to make that kind of distinction. And then there is still the discourse around the power of the positives of sport, right? I often hear we need to bring the power of sport to the people, and that leads to all sorts of whitewashing, sport washing, all ideas about benevolence and what it is that organizations need to do for Indigenous people.
[00:27:24] So what we need is more sport, right? In order to address the social ills that Indigenous people face and, from what I hear when I sit at the tables, whether it's with the Aboriginal Sports Circle or, or with like our regional members, or even in school, that is just a really problematic dialogue. So I think organizations need to go back to the basics, go back to the first tenets of the TRC and start having dialogues about what is the history of sport and simply, and then the thing is, my experience too is, and I'm not sure what Allan's experience is, I do believe in the power of stories, especially when they're told well and there's dialogue around it.
[00:28:01] But from my experience, stories, it's not gonna help these organizations move forward. It is not gonna help people understand because they will still walk away with their own understanding of what they've heard. They have these ideas about modernity that are wrapped up in ideas about benevolence and the power of their understanding of sport,
[00:28:18] which is the right way to do sport. We need to go back to basics and have a discussion about the role of sport and colonization, the role of sport and settler colonialism, the role of power relations, and start asking other questions about, okay, are we actually doing Indigenization? Is that really what is needed here, or are we going to engage in decolonization?
[00:28:38] Because those are two very different projects that require different levels of commitment, different types of resources. Because right now, because no one, as far as I could tell, are having these dialogues in, in, in sport at this level, or at least in the circles that I travel in it. Probably is different when you're talking about Indigenous sport at the community level, because the most relevant level is always the local level.
[00:28:58] We need to go back to basics cause sport is miles behind as, as far as I could tell other sectors. And I think that's really disappointing, especially when Allan and I are trying to explain the significance of sport to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous communities and, and how they're trying to use sport.
[00:29:14] But those messages are lost when it leaves this kind of space.
[00:29:24] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to The Big Thinking Podcast and to our guests, Allan Downey, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Indigenous Studies at McMaster University and Janice Forsyth, Professor in Indigenous Land-based Physical Culture and Wellness at The University of British Columbia. I also want to thank our friends at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this Podcast possible.
[00:29:48] Finally, thank you to CitedMedia for their support and producing the Big Thinking Podcast. Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast, à la prochaine!