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‘It’s just like the Olympics’: Wisconsin tribal athletes compete in the North American Indigenous Games

Thousands of participants from more than 750 tribal nations are attending

Team Wisconsin at the North American Indigenous Games
Isabel “Izzy” Young and her sister Lucy (third and second from the right) are members of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, who are competing with members of Team Wisconsin at the 2023 North American Indigenous Games. Photo courtesy of the North American Indigenous Games

Tribal youth from across Wisconsin are taking part in the 2023 North American Indigenous Games this week in Nova Scotia, Canada.

More than 5,000 Indigenous participants from more than 750 tribal nations are competing in 16 sports throughout the games, which are being held in the ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people. An opening ceremony for the games dubbed the “Indigenous Olympics” took place Sunday.

Indigenous youth ages 13 to 19 from across the state are competing as part of Team Wisconsin in a variety of sports, including box lacrosse, basketball and volleyball.

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For Omar Bailey, he said gold is the goal. The 17-year-old is among 11 athletes from the Forest County Potawatomi Community competing at the games. He’s in six events, including the 4×400-meter relay race. Bailey said he has some tricks to beat the competition.

“I can’t tell you,” Omar said. “But I think I got some.”

North American Indigenous Games
Tribal youth from Team Wisconsin take part in the opening ceremony of the 2023 North American Indigenous Games on Sunday, July 16, 2023. Photo courtesy of the 2023 North American Indigenous Games

His 14-year-old sister Elyssa Bailey is also competing. She had been to pep rallies before as a supporter, but Elyssa said it was a whole different experience as she and other athletes walked into an arena with thousands of people for the opening ceremony.

“It felt really nice to know there’s people out there supporting you. Knowing that you’re here, and they’re there to watch you, and they’re going to be there through the journey and after the journey is done,” she said. “I felt like I was the one. I’m not going to lie. I was like, ‘I made it.’

Their mother, Callie Victor, competed in the games in 2002 as part of Team Wisconsin, bringing home a silver medal on the basketball team for girls 16 and younger.

“It’s awesome to be able to relate to them when they walked out for the opening ceremony (Sunday) night, getting ready for competition,” Victor said. “But then also from that milestone of watching them grow and compete.”

Oneida Nation Tribal Chairman Tehassi Hill said around 300 participants from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes are attending the games including athletes, coaches and staff. He said that includes about 80 participants from the Oneida Nation.

“It’s a great opportunity for the youth to get outside the reservation, spread their wings, learn a little bit of culture from other tribes around North America, and really get to interact and create friendships,” Hill said.

North American Indigenous Games
Athletes from the Oneida Nation are representing Team Wisconsin at the 2023 North American Indigenous Games. Photo courtesy of the 2023 North American Indigenous Games

Eight athletes from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians are competing, according to LaKeisha Williams, the tribe’s events coordinator. She said the games are important to tribal youth who she said often face challenges related to intergenerational trauma like addiction and depression.

“It’s really hard because we feel alone a lot of the time, and we feel so lost,” Williams said. “This is just something to redirect us and show us that we are here and we’re one. We have support, and we have friends and we have family all over the place.”

The games are typically held every four years. This year marks the 10th North American Indigenous Games, and the first time it has been run since the games scheduled in 2020 were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Izzy Young, 16, and her sister Lucy, 14, are competing on the same volleyball team. The siblings from New Berlin said the games are important because they want to represent their tribe and state well.

The two Forest County Potawatomi athletes faced off against Nova Scotia with other members of Team Wisconsin on Monday, winning their first game. She said the excitement and cheers from the crowd are her favorite part of the games.

Abigayle Rose House is part of Team Wisconsin
Abigayle Rose House, 18, is a member of Team Wisconsin, who is competing on a softball team at the 2023 North American Indigenous Games. Photo courtesy of the North American Indigenous Games

“I just want to have fun with a team and enjoy this experience that I’ll only be able to get once,” Izzy said. “Even if it doesn’t come out as we want it to come out, I’m just happy to have this experience. But, obviously, I’m hoping to win and have some good achievements here.”

Lucy said they’ve been getting up in the early morning hours to train for the games. For her, she said it’s important to feel more connected to her culture.

“I’m here with my tribe and just like all the culture during the opening ceremony — that was such a good feeling,” Lucy said. “Just being surrounded by my whole culture and so many different tribes in there.”

Her father Marc said he hopes the games show the girls that they’re not alone in the world, highlighting the hundreds of tribes that are represented at the competition. He said it’s a great feeling to see not just one, but two of his children competing on behalf of Team Wisconsin.

“The world has their Olympics…but this is just for Indigenous people,” he said. “That sets a precedent just for us, saying that Native people are here. We love one another. We’re united. We’re strong, and look at what we can do as well.”

People can follow the games and competitions online. A closing ceremony will be held on Friday, and the games run through July 23.