KWANDONG, South Korea — Hockey fans are known to dress for the occasion, so the concourse at the Kwandong Hockey Centre was filled Thursday with fans wrapped in maple leaf flags and red, white and blue blankets. Almost everyone wore an item of clothing that identified him or her as a fan of the women’s hockey team from Canada or the United States.
Near the door, however, stood a man of regal bearing and conspicuous in full Indian headdress.
His name was Willie Littlechild.
The grand chief of the Treaty 6 Territory and a Cree, he was the first Treaty Indian from Alberta to earn a law degree, was the first Treaty Indian to serve in Parliament, helped draft the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and received the Order of Canada in 1988.
Littlechild, 73, is in Pyeongchang to promote the World Indigenous Games, which draw from 370 million indigenous peoples in 70 countries.
He’s also here for the hockey. Because hockey, he said, saved his life.
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Littlechild was taken from his parents in 1951 and was forced to attend the Ermineskin Indian Residential School for 14 years, where he said he was physically and sexually abused.
“We have what was called a residential school era in Canada that we’re just coming out of by way of a truth and reconciliation commission,” he said. “In the U.S. they called them boarding schools. But they had the same consequence in terms of the impact on children when you take them away from their parents.”
Unfortunately, the history of indigenous peoples in Canada is similar to that of Native Americans in the United States. In the U.S., the federal government began sending Indians to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870s. An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools.
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Pratt said. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Littlechild might have become a statistic if not for his skill as an athlete. He played all sports but was especially good at hockey, a game that was as important to the residential schools as it was to all of Canada. He went on to play at the University of Alberta and later represented Canada in 11 World Championships, winning five gold medals.
“We have some difficult challenges with suicides and addictions,” Littlechild said of the plight on reserves. “But sports seem to have a very important role in keeping us away from those lifestyle choices. It’s an opportunity to try and utilize sport in a way and at the same time promote a more positive, active lifestyle in our communities.”
Littlechild pointed out with pride that four indigenous people represent Team Canada at the Pyeongchang Games, including Brigitte Lacquette on the women’s hockey team and Rene Bourque – a University of Wisconsin graduate – on the men’s team.
“So, we’re supporting our own indigenous Olympians but at the same time we’re promoting a bid to bring the Olympics back to Calgary in 2026,” he said. “The indigenous peoples are really behind that initiative.”Littlechild’s own hockey career ended when he suffered a badly broken leg while skiing.“I wasn’t supposed to be doing it,” he said sheepishly.In 1971, he organized the Native Summer Games for Alberta, with more than 3,000 athletes […]
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