January 12, 2022

Indigenous Focus Hits the Ice in Professional Hockey

The NHL's newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, is leading the way with art and youth programs to build Native American ties to a sport that traces much of its history to Indigenous peoples of North America.

By

Underscore.news and Indian Country Today

On Dec. 6, the Seattle Kraken hockey team took to the ice for warm-ups wearing specially designed jerseys inspired by traditional Karuk basketry, while more than 200 invited members of the area’s Native American community watched from the stands. 

The Kraken, the National Hockey League’s newest team, wore the unique pre-game jerseys as part of the franchise’s Indigenous People’s Night game, which included an on-ice performance from about 20 people of the Muckleshoot Canoe Family singing group. 

It wasn’t the only time the team has recognized Indigenous people and the tribal nations that have inhabited the area for time immemorial. 

While other NHL franchises are also attempting to engage with Native American fans and tribal communities — including the dedication of game nights to Indigenous people — the Kraken have been taking more concrete steps toward engaging with the region’s tribal leaders and others in Indian Country to make them feel like they’re part of the team’s community and to amplify the voices of Indigenous people. 

“Hockey has not historically been the most representative sport. That's not a secret,” said Mari Horita, vice president of community engagement and social impact for the Kraken.

Upon launching the franchise, Horita said the team’s leadership and owners wanted to start “fresh with a clean slate” and be an example of how a professional sports franchise can authentically and aggressively work to be welcoming and inclusive to all. 

Ty Juvenil (right), an artist and member of The Tulalip Tribes, presents Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke a paddle at a Native Leaders Luncheon with the Seattle Kraken in August 2021. Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

The team has prioritized working with all underserved communities that traditionally might not have been exposed to the game, Horita said. But given the history of Indigenous people and tribal nations of the area, working to include them in the team’s story was especially important, she added. 

“We need to be inclusive, we need to be representative, we need to be a team and an arena where everyone really sees themselves, knows that they are seen and respected, and where we all feel a part of the story,” Horita said. 

With the input of tribal leaders and consultants who specialize in Indian Country, the team wrote a land acknowledgement statement about the team playing on the “homelands of the Coast Salish peoples” while recognizing “Washington’s tribal nations and Native organizations, who actively create, shape and contribute to our thriving communities.”

The Kraken also started a post-game salmon toss tradition to recreate workers tossing fish at local fish markets — which the team ensured, through Indigenous consultants, wouldn’t be offensive or culturally insensitive — at home games for fans. Team facilities are decorated with art from local Native American artists, and the franchise has hosted educational events for Indigenous youth to teach the fundamentals of stick-and-ball hockey to help increase Native American youth participation in a sport that traces much of its history to Indigenous people in North America.

“It's always been our game,” said Deejay Alook, a First Nations hockey coach who has worked with the Kraken on some of their Indigenous youth initiatives and grew up playing the sport in Canada. Some tribal nations, like the Mi’kmaq, he added, even have hockey — or similar games that gave rise to the modern sport — “buried in their language and culture.” 

Elevating Indigenous People and Their Stories

During the Dec. 6 game, the Kraken, playing in their first NHL season, not only wore special jerseys designed by Indigenous artist Fox Spears, but also had a member of the Lummi Nation sing the national anthem.

But the Kraken’s first outreach efforts to Indian Country can be traced back to about two years ago, Horita said, when the team met with local tribal leaders and other organizations to introduce themselves and ask how the team could be good community members and welcoming to all. That initial meeting helped lead to the land acknowledgement statement and later meetings with tribal leaders. 

Local Native American leaders at a luncheon with the Seattle Kraken in August 2021. Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

One of the biggest takeaways from those meetings, Horita said, was that tribal leaders wanted the team to focus its efforts on working with youth. The organization also wanted to give Indigenous people another way to tell their stories and amplify them, which led to the franchise commissioning several art projects, including carvings and murals by Indigenous artists. 

“This is a long journey, and we have a lot of work to do,” Horita said. “And I'm certainly not saying we're doing it perfectly, or we do it exactly right, every time. But we are trying to be as intentional as possible.”

To help guide its work, the team also brought in Indian Country consultants to think through ideas and help facilitate work with tribal leaders and other organizations. The firm, Pyramid Communications, suggested that the team use the land acknowledgement statement as a launching point to establish relationships and encourage participation in the sport or with the team, said Temryss Lane, Indian Country director for Pyramid. 

Lane, who attended the Dec. 6 Indigenous People’s Night, also said she helped the team find the Lummi woman who sang the national anthem at the game. 

So far, Lane, who is from the Lummi Nation, said it seems like the team has taken that advice to go beyond a land acknowledgement and engage with the Indigenous community seriously. 

“To end up working with Seattle Kraken, to do it well, and to do it in a good way — to think of Native people as foundational to who the city of Seattle is, and who they're serving, and who they are interested in engaging and having at their games — certainly was healing for me,” she said. 

Focus on Native American Youth

For Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s director of youth and community development, the ultimate goal of the team’s work in Indian Country — and with other groups who haven’t traditionally participated in hockey — is to ensure that growth isn’t limited to suburban and wealthier communities as hockey becomes more popular in the region. 

Boyd, who is African American, grew up playing hockey in Minnesota. While few people of color played the sport, he said, the game was so ingrained in the state’s culture that he often found himself on the ice. But in many other places where hockey isn’t as popular, it’s more difficult for youth of color and others to picture themselves as part of the game. 

Andrea Wilbur-Sigo, an artist and member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, shows her artwork at the Seattle Kraken’s Native Leaders Luncheon in August 2021. Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

“Oftentimes, that access to the game is limited for youth of color, rural youth, minorities in general, who aren’t growing up in those suburban communities,” he said. “The goal has always been, since the beginning, that we want to see hockey and our game accessible for everyone and something that everyone feels like they can engage with.”

Alook, who is part of the Big Stone Cree Nation in Alberta, has spent his career coaching hockey. After moving to Seattle with his family, he started Tribal Hockey, a nonprofit that aims to increase participation in the sport among youth through tournaments and camps. He’s passionate about the game he’s played most of his life and credits it with keeping him grounded during a chaotic youth, believing it to be a great character-building activity. Alook hopes to grow Tribal Hockey into an organization that hosts large youth hockey tournaments and provides training camps for players. 

Alook’s ultimate goal, he said, is for at least two to four of the area’s tribes to have their own teams. But that’s a far-away objective. First, to begin building a base and getting people interested in the game, he wants to start with education and the basics of the game: stickhandling, passing and shooting. Incorporating Indigenous culture and history is also important, he added. He believes the game is one of the best sports for tying into life, and he loves the speed and creativity of it. 

“It's just a passion of mine. It's just educating people about the sport and their origin and how great it is,” Alook said. “To me, it's one of the closest sports that replicates life itself, in a sense of how fast it is, how much we battle, compete, cooperate, all those things.”

Early on, Alook said the Kraken reached out about a potential partnership and to ask for his help in growing the sport. Earlier this year, the Kraken and Alook partnered to produce a video about the history and basics of hockey for Muckleshoot youth and have also hosted introduction events to the game through ball hockey events. While COVID-19 slowed down some of those efforts, Alook said he’s been in discussions with the Muckleshoot and other tribes to build those partnerships.  

A jersey inspired by traditional Karuk basketry and designed by Indigenous artist Fox Spears, a member of the Karuk Tribe, hangs in a Seattle Kraken player’s locker. Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

Using street and ball hockey as an initial exposure to the game is great, Boyd said, but the next steps are getting ice time at hockey rinks and youth onto the ice. The team has worked with local Indigenous organizations and other groups to host public skating events for kids to further facilitate that introduction to the sport. 

“There’s nothing quite like actually getting on the ice,” he said.

While Alook said what he and the team “are trying to bite off is huge” and challenging, they have a good chance to grow the game beyond traditional demographics because hockey is still a relatively new and unknown sport to many in the Pacific Northwest, especially in tribal communities. There are also barriers to entering the game, like expensive equipment and access to ice time. He’s hoping his and the team’s efforts can lead to buy-in from tribes and other groups to help get more kids playing. 

Eventually, he wants to see some sort of a league or annual tournament for tribal teams in the Pacific Northwest, not unlike annual tournaments in Canada that host 250 or more teams of Indigenous players of all ages competing against each other. 

“All the tribes, if you look at it, it's a clean piece of paper. They're not really involved in the sport or know the sport,” Alook said. “So you have a clean sheet. And there’s not too many places in North America where you can have that opportunity.”

--

Lead photo: During warm-ups for a Dec. 6 game on Indigenous People’s Night, the Seattle Kraken wore special jerseys designed by Indigenous artist Fox Spears, a member of the Karuk Tribe. Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

About the author

Chris Aadland

Chris covers tribal affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Underscore.news and Indian Country Today and is a descendant of the Red Lake Nation and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Chris covered Indian Country for two years as a Report for America corps member for Casper Star-Tribune and Montana Free Press. He won a Wyoming Press Association Pacemaker award for an investigation he wrote with a colleague at the Casper Star-Tribune about a secretive lobbying effort by a Wyoming tribe to derail gaming legislation that would have negatively affected tribal gaming revenue.

Click here to view articles by Chris