Ignorance is an activity, it isn’t simply not knowing but a form of knowing supported by the socio-political system. –Lisa Slater
It is well documented that youth sport teaches young people life lessons – about themselves, the importance of teamwork, etc. In this short reflexive essay (drawn from a larger book project), I consider another kind of education at work in youths’ encounters with sport in settler states – countries founded upon the theft of land from Indigenous peoples: it teaches young settlers, in particular, about their place in the world, their “right” to live on stolen lands.
Here, I take up selected fragments of my childhood and youth, interrogating how my encounters with sport (as both a participant and a consumer) shaped my understandings of myself and my belonging on lands claimed by Canada. I consider, in the words of social scientist Lisa Slater, some of the “dimly lit memories” that provide clues to my developing sense of self.
1986 (Or ’85. Or ’90. Or it doesn’t matter when.)
I sit on the hard bleachers of McMahon stadium, bouncing my legs as fast as I can to try to generate warmth while we watch a Calgary Stampeders Canadian Football League game. As Dad and I drink hot chocolate from a thermos, the “Stamps” score a TD, and a horse and rider run the length of the field in celebration. I scream in joy, looking around at the thousands of mostly white boys and men doing the same. My “home team” is playing their perpetual rivals, now called the Edmonton Elk.
A snippet like this could just as easily have come from an NHL hockey game between the Calgary Flames and the team from Chicago. On one hand, then, I encountered tropes of Indigeneity such as Indigenous team names and mascots in these hyper-masculine professional sport settings, normalizing this as part of my childhood, teaching me what kind of person I should (want to) be. On the other, attending these games – or fervently following the Flames, in particular, especially as part of the “battle of Alberta” in the heydays of both the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – produced a sense of belonging, tying me to this place, making it feel very much like home. It was my home, but was also produced as such in ongoing and banal ways.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s
I am playing a sport; I don’t even remember which one. Judging by the coaches I encountered in my high school years, I’d guess football. The coach is trying to get our attention: “Boys. Pow-wow over here!” He blathers on, something about putting in the work if we want to make it to the “top of the totem pole.”
I am caught up in the excitement of Calgary hosting the Olympic Winter Games. I covet the Sun Ice jackets volunteers and others sport, follow the saga of Eddie the Eagle, attend a couple of medal ceremonies at Olympic Plaza downtown, getting choked up when I see Canadians atop the medal podium as “O Canada” plays over the loudspeakers. I collect pins, and consume many events, both in person and via the televised broadcasts.
As historian Christine O’Bonsawin articulates, the Calgary Olympics employed “Indigenous imagery” in numerous dimensions of the organization of the Games, marshalling the caché of the Calgary Stampede to garner international attention and construct the Games as of this place. Organizers, she notes:
utilized the international prestige of the Calgary Stampede and based their cultural programming around the Stampede’s symbolic use of the Mountie, the cowboy and the Indian… For example, the composition of the Olympic medals displayed winter sporting equipment protruding from a ceremonial headdress, an enormous teepee at McMahon Stadium supporting the Olympic cauldron, and the Calgary Stampede Board’s suggestion that an ‘Indian attack and wagon-burning’ be a part of the opening ceremony (this was ultimately rejected).
The Olympics, then, mobilized and marketed “Indigenous imagery” while, at the very same moments, hailing me – producing me – as Canadian, as rightfully belonging on these lands. Think here of the anthem, for instance, the notion of “home and native land.” (Also consider Jully Black’s recent act subverting these lyrics.)
Part of the ideological “[sleight] of hand” of settler colonialism is the illusion that it is a process that is finished as opposed to one that requires constant nurturing and reproduction. Similarly, my at-homeness as a settler was and is not simply a given, but one that was and is nourished in innumerable spaces and ways, not least through my encounters with sport as a youth. We are born into these positions, but we also encounter everyday teaching moments that shape our understandings of and relation to ongoing histories on these lands. Only if we recognize these teaching moments can we interrogate and, perhaps, refuse them as we come to understand, in the words of cultural studies scholar Mark Rifkin, “that the very terrain [we] inhabit as given has never ceased to be a site of political struggle.”
Author biographical note:
Jason (Jay) Laurendeau is a white, cisgender, settler scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, Alberta, located on lands of the Siksikaitsitapii people, who are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His research interests lie at the intersections of sport and physical culture, gender, settler colonialism, and childhood. He is the author of Sport, Physical Activity, and Anti-Colonial Autoethnography: Stories and Ways of Being.