Indigenous Games continue to fortify mother-daughter bond
When Juleah Duesing was in Grade 2 she wrote a poem for a Mother’s Day project.
At the end of the poem were the words: “I want to win as many trophies as my mom did.”
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Reila Bird is Juleah’s mom. She attended the first-ever North American Indigenous Games as a spectator in 1990, watching her sister compete in volleyball. Bird admits she didn’t know much about the Games until arriving in Edmonton that year and was awe-struck by the experience.
“I was 13 and had an Aboriginal father who had little connection back to the First Nation,” said Bird. “I was always told I was Aboriginal. But I didn’t experience cultural traditions and I didn’t have a cultural lifestyle.”
But the Games ignited a desire to not only learn more about her culture, but to get back to there and compete as an athlete.
Bird got a late start to her athletic career, but her natural sprinting abilities made her a standout early on. By Grade 9 she had entered the club scene in Regina and also qualified for Team Saskatchewan heading to NAIG in 1993.
“I didn’t think I would be successful at all because these were North American Indigenous Games. I was told that everybody from the United States and eastern Canada were really good and I was just from Regina, Saskatchewan,” Bird said.
But she soared past the competition in every race she ran in front of a hometown crowd in Prince Albert, Sask. In fact, Bird won gold in every race she ran; the 100 metres, 200, 400 and 4×100 relay.
“I think the most exciting part was being on the podium for the first time and having that gold medal. It was very humbling because I didn’t think I would win a race. And my family was there,” she said.
Two years later in Minnesota, Bird went back to NAIG with a wealth of experience and confidence. She followed up her golden Games in Prince Albert by repeating that performance.
However, the 4×100 first-place finish would be the last race she’d ever run.
“I had struggled the whole time with stress fractures because I was training at a long distance track club,” recalled Bird. “After the last race I ran I had to go to the hospital and that pretty much ended my track and field days.”
Daughter shows same natural talent as mom
Bird’s premature end to her athletic career is still something she thinks about today. She had plans of attending the University of Saskatchewan to compete with the Huskies track team.
But she found a way to reconnect with a sport she loved when her daughter was born.
Unlike her mother’s late start, Duesing showed signs of being a great runner early on in elementary school. By Grade 3 she was sprinting ahead of her classmates and other students during track meets. By Grade 4 Duesing was in a track club and being coached by her mom.
“She was taking me all over the province for track meets,” Duesing said. “But at the time I was just going to do it because I wanted to do it and was having fun.”
For the next few years she trained hard, her mom right there every step of the way. All this was leading to Duesing’s first big moment, when at just 11 years old she qualified for Team Saskatchewan’s track squad at the 2014 NAIG in Regina.
“I was a little intimidated because I was 11 and was racing against girls who were 14 years old,” said Duesing.
Not unlike what her mom went through in her first Games, wondering if she could compete against older athletes from all across North America, Duesing also had her doubts. That’s when Bird shared a lot of her experiences.
“We talked about it a lot,” said Bird. “She’s a very confident girl who is strong and knew I was in the Games [and] saw my medals. She was ready.”
Just like Bird did in her first Games, Duesing captured four medals: three gold and one silver.
“I was so proud of myself,” said Duesing. “I wanted to hide that I was First Nations”
Not only have mother and daughter bonded through sport, they’ve also connected through finding their Indigenous identity.
“I didn’t know much about being Aboriginal,” admitted Bird. “I have blonde hair and am fair and didn’t fit into an Aboriginal world. But when I had a chance to go to those first Games that was the first real experience I had seeing any type of Aboriginal culture.”
Duesing has a very similar story. But Bird made sure her daughter wouldn’t have the same struggles she did with what it meant to be Indigenous.
“I experienced racism in many ways. I wanted to hide that I was First Nations,” Bird said.
“I didn’t want anyone to know. My last name is Bird and most of the time people would ask, ‘is it Byrd from Europe?’ And I’d have to correct them. I’d quite often get a remark like, ‘you’re not one of them.'”
While Duesing has also been incorrectly identified, she takes a hard stand against racism and is proud of her heritage.
“People will question me. They don’t believe it. But when I hear a racial comment about First Nations I immediately confront it,” she said.
Marching into opening ceremony together
Unlike 2014 when Duesing walked into the Games with her mom in the stands as a spectator, the two will walk into the opening ceremony together on Sunday night (CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET) in Toronto for the 2017 Games.
Bird has been her daughter’s individual coach for about a year now, after Duesing took a break from the club scene. While it’s been difficult for the two to work around each other’s schedule, they found a way to make it work.
“I’m with her and I’m able to support on this journey,” Bird said.
Duesing couldn’t be more grateful.
“That’s going to be so special and overpowering moment because I went into the 2014 Games sort of alone,” said Duesing. “I couldn’t think of anyone better to guide me through sports and life.”
She’ll be busy. Duesing is competing in the 100, 200, 300, possible the 4×100 relay, and long jump.
And she’s just four medals away from doing exactly what she wrote down in that poem all those years ago; winning as many medals as her mom did. If she does it, Bird will have the best seat at the event to watch it unfold in Toronto.