APTN series highlights Yukon’s aboriginal sports

By his own admission, Steve Sxwithul'txw is "an urban Indian." A member of the Penelakut tribe of the Coast Salish Nation on Vancouver Island, he was mainly raised "off-res. But this month, he traded in the views of Victoria ...

By his own admission, Steve Sxwithul’txw is “an urban Indian.”

A member of the Penelakut tribe of the Coast Salish Nation on Vancouver Island, he was mainly raised “off-res.” But this month, he traded in the views of Victoria to spend some time with schoolchildren and sled dogs in Whitehorse. And later this year, the rest of Canada will get to watch highlights from his first trip to the Yukon.

For the past year, Sxwithul’txw has travelled across North America documenting youth involvement in various aboriginal sports for a new television series. The show, Warrior Games, will premiere on APTN this fall.

Each of the 13 half-hour episodes features Sxwithul’txw learning a sport from a different First Nation, from lacrosse and war canoe races to dancing and snowboarding. He and his crew visited Whitehorse to participate in Arctic and Dene games.

They took part in the Inter-school Yukon Arctic Sport Championships at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Cenre on April 12. This week, they learned about Dene games at Vanier Catholic Secondary School.

Sxwithul’txw has been thinking of doing a show focused on aboriginal sports for years. His goal is simple: to “exert community pride and get the youth away from their video games,” he said.

“I think that over time, our interest in aboriginal sport has waned because of modern technology,” said Sxwithul’txw. In the past, sports were used to settle disputes, teach lessons, or simply keep people warm in the winter. Now, some of these things are being lost.

But the word “warrior” is in the show’s title for a reason. One trip last year to the southern United States introduced Sxwithul’txw to stickball. He’d never heard of the game before, and some of the most fun he’s had filming came learning to play this “brutal” sport, he said. Similar to lacrosse, stickball is played with two sticks and two little balls. It’s violent, but very well-supported, he said.

“It’s a game which nobody’s obviously paid to play. They play for community pride against each other in that region and we found that it can be quite violent, yet the teamwork and camaraderie and community spirit for that whole thing is just amazing,” said Sxwithul’txw.

That communal element makes the sports important. Youth need to “know the games and traditions that we followed in the past, and re-live them,” said Sxwithul’txw.

But when the cameras roll, the younger generation becomes the teacher.

Most of these sports are completely new to Sxwithul’txw, who grew up playing basketball and soccer. His first exposure to Arctic games came during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

“I want to be so not prepared to do the sport. That’s what makes the show, is my whimsical way of working through the sport,” he said before flying up to Whitehorse.

And if the dried blood on his knuckles Friday afternoon was any indication, that’s what the Whitehorse episode will show.

The culprit was the seal hop. In this sport, children hop around the gym with their hands flat on the floor until they’re too tired to keep going. In the adult version, the knuckle hop, athletes hop around on their knuckles.

As the story goes, it was a way to help hunters look more like seals, said Gael Marchand, the executive director of the Yukon Aboriginal Sports Circle, the organizers of last Friday’s inter-school championship.

“I gotta tell you, I’m so sore today. I had trouble getting out of bed,” Sxwithul’txw said Friday afternoon. It didn’t help that a recent shoot snowboarding with a First Nations team in Whistler, B.C. left the 47-year-old with some broken ribs. But part of being a warrior is persevering, and that’s what he wants to show the kids, he said. They helped, chanting his name as he tried to jump to his legs from his knees.

It took about three tries, he said.

Sxwithul’txw had a little trouble learning some sports, but was “pretty good,” said Errol Ekholm, a Grade 4 student at Whitehorse Elementary School. Ekholm helped demonstrate the one-foot high kick. In this sport, a target hangs from a rope. Athletes run at the target and jump off one or two feet and try to kick the target. They must land on the same foot they jumped from.

“Don’t stop trying,” said Ekholm, winner of multiple medals at Friday’s event, when asked what advice he’d give other athletes.

Having the youth teach him is the best part of the show, said Sxwithul’txw. And while Yukon’s capital may be one of the last places his crew has visited, it quickly became a highlight, he said.

“When we’re down in Vancouver, we think about Whitehorse, and we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s way up there, and what do they do up there, and why are they living here?’” Sxwithul’txw said Friday. He expected a colder, smaller, more desolate place. But when he arrived, he saw a lot of community support, he said.

And that’s what he wants his show to portray, bloody knuckles and all.

Warrior Games will begin broadcasting on APTN this fall, but there’s no set launch date yet. Sxwithul’txw expects the Whitehorse episode will air about halfway through the 13-episode season.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at