There would be no Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin without Isaiah Kicknosway.
The next World Junior Lacrosse Championship (WJLC) will be a historic tournament. There are eight teams representing eight different nations, but for the first time, two of those nations are Indigenous.
The Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin (Ah-nish-ih-nah-bay Bah-gah-ah-dow-way-win, which means Anishinaabe Lacrosse) will represent one of the largest Indigenous ethnic groups in North America, encompassing territory that stretches from Quebec to Montana, as well as bands in Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Three Fires Confederacy. These tribes are currently known as the Ojibwe (Oh-jib-way), Odawa (Oh-dow-wah, Ottawa), and Bodewadmi (Boh-day-waid-mee, Potawatomi). The Anishinaabe have a strong lacrosse tradition that will make its debut at this tournament.
The man behind the team is Isaiah Kicknosway, hailing from Walpole Island First Nation and with heritage from all three major Anishinaabe tribes. Kicknosway grew up with lacrosse and reached the highest level of the sport with a spot on the Iroquois Nationals.
“The Iroquois Nationals are the pinnacle, the most sought after organization for a lacrosse player to play for, and I was fortunate enough to achieve that,” he said.
Playing for Team Iroqouis was an honor, but Kicknosway wanted to create the same opportunity for his own nation. The Iroquois currently have a rule that no more than three team members may be from a non-Iroquois, federally recognized Indigenous nation. He knew there would need to be someone to spearhead the creation of another Indigenous team.
“After achieving that goal of playing for those teams, it just felt a little not as fulfilling as it could have been, because of my foundation of understanding where I come from,” Isaiah Kicknosway explained. “I understood the difference of playing for another nation, and then never being able to play for my own nation or even my own first nation my own rez [reserve].“
Lacrosse was once a very popular game among Anishinaabe peoples. Just as it is today, lacrosse was a social game that brought many people together from far and wide, and it was played during large gatherings throughout the year. This all started to wane in the early-to-mid-1900’s when boarding schools sponsored by the American and Canadian governments forcibly removed children from their families to attempt to erase all forms of Indigenous language, culture and beliefs. In Canada specifically, it was also illegal for Indigenous people to travel for any kind of cultural or spiritual activity. All of this led to a huge amount of culture loss, and Anishinaabe lacrosse was one of the practices that almost died out.
Kicknosway wanted to do something to combat this cultural erosion. He had benefited from the incredible opportunities lacrosse can bring, and his love for the game led him to believe that this would be one of the ways that Anishinaabe people could begin to further reclaim their heritage and renew many of the traditions that had once been commonplace among their many communities. Thus, Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin was born.
The work came together at a breakneck pace. Isaiah Kicknosway founded the Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin in December 2019, and he had his work cut out for him. The first step would be to find talent and interest across this vast area of the Anishinaabeg (plural for Anishinaabe) to field a team and get the organization off the ground. There are dozens of reserves and reservations across Canada and the United States (the two countries have different names for the territories reserved by Indigenous nations in treaty negotiations) that are home to Anishinaabe people, and it would be a huge task to reach out to each of them.
“In 2019, I traveled around to different First Nations communities to find out where the game was in each of these communities,” he said. “Who I found through online research either played or knew somebody that played to create connections.”
Kicknosway knew this work would have to be very strategic. He would have to find ways to nurture the game where it was established but also where interest was growing. In his travels, he found there were some lacrosse organizations that were decades old, while other places were just getting started. Some places were playing box, others field, and still others focused more on the traditional wood stick version of the game that is seeing a comeback in recent years.
“You have to assess the interest, where there already is interest, and try to grow from that and try to get other local communities involved that are close to that,” Kicknosway explained.
Emails from interested players started coming in quickly. It was looking promising that they could field a full team when the time came for tryouts. Within a few months of founding the organization, Kicknosway received a call from the organizer of the WJLC, inviting his team to come and play in the international youth box tournament in Winnipeg.
“It was kind of a shock,” Isaiah Kicknosway said. “I got a call from the organizer Chris Fox … that we were going to be accepted and be able to play in the tournament. [Now] we have to get a team ready in seven months and an organization at the exact same time.”
It was very surprising to have an invitation to this kind of event so soon in the organization’s history. Despite the fast pace of these developments, Kicknosway knew he couldn’t turn the offer down.
“It’s an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” he explained. “To play lacrosse in the box form in traditional Anishinaabe territory … I think it’s the perfect place and the perfect opportunity to showcase our inaugural team and what the overall mission of [Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin] is all about.”
This was going to be the opportunity to really show the world who Anishniaabe Nationals are and the talent present there. Beyond just showcasing ability, this competition sets up a bigger conversation about Indigenous sovereignty and rights among nations.
Indigenous nations are sovereign, which means they hold the same rights to self determination as any other recognized nation, like France or Japan. These rights are often mitigated and limited through the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada, restricting opportunities to exercise this sovereignty.
International sport is one way that some tribes are trying to realize this inherent right, like the Iroqouis Nationals traveling on their own passport and representing their own nation. This tournament would be one of the biggest international stages ever to host two sovereign tribal nations in international competition, which would allow them to compete with other recognized nations as equals. It would also set a precedent for Indigenous inclusion on the world level.
“[It’s in] our basic human rights to compete,” Isaiah Kicknosway said. “ [It’s] in our rights as sovereign people and in our rights to be able to play.”
Things were taking many positive turns, and the future was very bright for the Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin. But then the world shut down.
As with so many things, COVID-19 delayed the tournament and stuttered all attempts at hosting tryouts and organizing a team. The Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin went from a meteoric liftoff to being grounded where they started.
Despite all of this, it was likely a good thing for the long-term viability of the organization. Going from starting an organization to trying to coordinate a competitive program for an international tournament all within a few months is a lot to go through for even the best administrators.
“I believe it gave us a lot of time to reevaluate and prepare for things in the future, which we’re doing,” Kicknosway explained. “We’re progressing pretty well at this point now.”
The good news: the WJLC will still happen in August 2021, at least as of now. For Kicknosway and the Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin, this tournament is only the beginning.
“We’d like to be able to play in as many tournaments as possible to give that opportunity to First Nations youth, both boys and girls, men, and women as much as we can,” Kicknosway said. “To play lacrosse is very much a gift and a huge opportunity. But it’s not only that, but the opportunity to play for your nation and against other nations.”
Kicknosway is hoping that this example will inspire other Indigenous nations with lacrosse traditions to consider fielding their own teams and bring greater diversity and Indigenous representation to the game.
Ultimately, one of his biggest goals is to see young players come up through the organization and inspire growth of the game in Anishinaabe communities. Currently, Anishinaabe Baagaadowewin is looking for youth players interested in trying out, and the organization is always open to input and feedback.
“If you’re from an Anishinaabe community and you play lacrosse, please connect with us through our website and through our socials,” Kicknosway explained. “If [Anishinaabe youth] play high school lacrosse, if they play college, if they play just at their middle school, or if they just play with their friends, we want to be able to connect to them. [We want to] be able to hear what they have to say about what they would like to see us do. We really want to connect with those communities, even if it’s a few individuals in a community.”