August 6, 2020

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First Nations voices, Canada's game

Sunday-night NHL games broadcast in Cree capture enthusiastic audience, provide shot in the arm for fading language

There’s no missing Earl Wood, especially not under the studio lights, which bathe everything in a glow that is somehow more vivid than life. He wears a bright orange vest and a black hat topped by a jaunty white feather. His hair trails over his shoulder in twin braids, knotted with leather fringe.

At 56, he has an animated face, with a smile that spreads like a sunrise to dancing brown eyes. He has lived a life. As a young man, he trained horses for the Nez Perce First Nation. In the early 1980s, he started a powwow singing group with two of his brothers, and their Northern Cree Singers went on to earn six Grammy Award nominations.

Now, he is sitting under the lights of the APTN studio in Winnipeg, some 1,200 kilometres from his home in Saddle Lake Cree Nation in central Alberta, and he is talking to himself in his language. Not just talking, but orating, buzzing through the opening lines he will soon deliver as host of the historic Rogers Hometown Hockey in Cree program.

"Tansi, tawow," Wood begins, hello and welcome, and then a torrent of words tumbles out of him.

Over and over, he practises this greeting, his face contorting with cartoonish expressions. He’s a natural showman; Hockey Night in Canada icon Ron MacLean likens him to "a mixture of Henny Youngman and Liberace."

He delivers his lines with the rapid-fire gusto of a powwow emcee, which he is, in the summer.

Soon, this will seem like a more innocent time. It is 12 days before the NHL suspends its season as the COVID-19 pandemic surges. Days before Canada closes its borders, provinces declare states of emergency and the whole nation hunkers down to flatten the curve. Nobody in this room, of course, has any idea what is coming.

So on this Sunday night in downtown Winnipeg, the mood is ebullient. It is the fifth time that Wood and the show’s three other hosts have put on a full NHL broadcast in the Cree language, and with minutes to go before showtime, they are settling into their places, ready to reach audiences across the country.

On the far side of the desk is NHL alumnus John Chabot, who played 508 games in The Show with Montreal, Detroit and Pittsburgh; he is Algonquin and grew up in Quebec. Beside him sits Jason Chamakese, a traditional musician from Pelican Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan who will translate Chabot’s English analysis into Cree.

Nearby, in a dimly lit space wedged between the studio’s set and its outer wall, Clarence Iron, the broadcast’s kinetic play-by-play announcer, sits at his desk surrounded by screens. Beside him, an assistant pulls up the lineups for the night’s featured game, a clash between Vancouver and Columbus.

The day before, the hosts were in Peguis First Nation, where Hockey Night in Canada had landed in advance of the featured Hometown Hockey broadcast. The hosts made the rounds at the festival, playing ball hockey with kids in a miniature rink where, earlier in the day, beaming families posed for photos with the Stanley Cup.

This visibility matters. In the year since Hometown Hockey in Cree’s debut, the hosts have become recognizable faces in many communities. They bear that as a responsibility, not least of all to the language itself. For the three Cree-speaking hosts, their fluency carries a legacy of survival.

Iron grew up in Durocher Lake, Sask., where he "never spoke good English" until he was almost 10 years old. When Chamakese’s mother was a girl, her mother hid her in their wagon so she wouldn’t be seized and taken to residential school, where Cree was forbidden; she kept the language that way, and passed it on to her children.

Wood was taken to residential school, and into the child-welfare system. But before that, he had come to know the language the way Cree children learned it since time immemorial: as a boy, after the adults sent the kids to bed, he would lie awake listening to elders and guests tell stories and laugh late into the night.

"Even just that one word, it comes with a whole bunch of values. It encompasses and it brings in the wellness, the balanced lifestyle. It acknowledges the original intention of life, and it being a gift. I’ve never heard those guys say, ‘Good evening, my loved ones... welcome to Hockey Night in Canada.’" – Earl Wood

There were a lot of wâhkôhtowin around then, Wood says, lots of relatives, and that’s what they did. There wasn’t much else to do in Saddle Lake at the time. There was no television, for instance. But there were always old tales and new gossip, and the Cree language filled them with life.

"We don’t have that now," he says. "Well we do, but it’s less. Now our family members text each other in the same house. Then, wapikiskwatewak, they used to talk to each other. Kakiyokâtowak, they used to visit each other. They used to exercise and show that relating. So the language, you’d hear it all day long."

Now, from this TV studio in the heart of Winnipeg, he sees a chance to bring those days back again. This NHL broadcast is not just a copy of the English version. It is other things, too: a statement about resilience. An invitation to Indigenous folk, especially youth, to explore their languages, many of which are fading away.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Minutes before showtime, Earl Wood gets ready to introduce the Hometown Hockey in Cree program.</p></p>

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Minutes before showtime, Earl Wood gets ready to introduce the Hometown Hockey in Cree program.

And it is, above all, a celebration of their culture, and the ways it finds resonance in hockey.

"When you watch Hockey Night in Canada, I’ve never heard those guys say, ‘Good evening, my relations, my loved ones.’ I’ve never heard them say that," Wood says. "We use words like that. We talk about love. We talk about our relations. We talk about relatives.

"Even just that one word, it comes with a whole bunch of values. It encompasses and it brings in the wellness, the balanced lifestyle. It acknowledges the original intention of life, and it being a gift. I’ve never heard those guys say, ‘Good evening, my loved ones... welcome to Hockey Night in Canada.’

"And I’m not knocking ‘em," Wood adds, with a wink. "I’m just saying. We got our own vibe."


The roots of Rogers Hometown Hockey in Cree stretch to the summer of 2018, when a delegation of Indigenous folk walked into the Sportsnet office in downtown Toronto. (A Sportsnet spokesman declined to name who all attended.) They were there to pitch executives on a never-before-tried idea: an NHL broadcast in an Indigenous language.

Those languages — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes 90 in Canada — are eroding. In residential schools, children were often punished for speaking their languages, sundering the transmission between generations. Today, three-quarters of Indigenous languages on these lands are considered endangered by linguists. None are deemed "safe."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Hockey Night in Canada’s spotlight allowed Peguis to showcase its people, culture and traditions, such as the round dance, which included broadcaster Ron MacLean.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Hockey Night in Canada’s spotlight allowed Peguis to showcase its people, culture and traditions, such as the round dance, which included broadcaster Ron MacLean.

Preserving those languages and reinvigorating transmission has become a focal point for many advocates, who see an opportunity to both safekeep the cultural wealth encoded in oral traditions and instil youth with a critical sense of identity and belonging long damaged by colonization.

There are signs these efforts are working. Between 1996 and 2016, Census data showed the number of people who were at least conversationally fluent in an Indigenous language increased by eight per cent, driven largely by an uptick in second-language learners. School immersion programs have sprouted up, as have language apps.

Now, at the Sportsnet office, the delegation believed that hockey could be a vehicle to give Indigenous languages a new kind of showcase, one that would interest youth while also honouring the deep connections between the game and their communities. It didn’t take much to convince the listening executives.

"Quite frankly, we were moved," says Sportsnet vice-president Rob Corte. "They did a great job educating us on an area we didn’t know much about. What was really evident was the passion they had — one for hockey, and another for Indigenous communities and the culture."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Members of the Spence family get up close to the Stanley Cup.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Members of the Spence family get up close to the Stanley Cup.

The meeting arrived at a good time. In 2013, when Sportsnet landed the exclusive rights to broadcast the NHL in Canada, part of the goal was that the network should look to expand the game’s footprint, Corte says, such as by connecting with broader demographics and new Canadians who didn’t grow up with the game.

"It’s really important for us to keep that in the front of our mind," he says. "The more communities we can get exposure to is beneficial for us, it’s beneficial for them, but it’s also beneficial for the game of hockey. As you see Canada start to change in terms of demographics, we want to be reflective of that."

Driven by that mission, Sportsnet had built a model for minority-language simulcasts. The network was pleased with its long-running Hockey Night in Punjabi partnership with OMNI Television, whose energetic hosts often made social-media waves; in 2018, Sportsnet again partnered with OMNI to add a Blue Jays broadcast in Tagalog.

So building bridges with Indigenous communities, that fit the vision; after some discussion about which language might be a good fit for a first try, Sportsnet settled on Plains Cree. It had already picked Enoch Cree Nation to be featured on its flagship Hometown Hockey broadcast in the 2018-19 season, so the pieces were in place.

The next step was to find a partner for the simulcast, and APTN was the obvious choice; the two struck a deal to broadcast a one-off show, but with potential for more in future seasons. After that, the next task became picking the right broadcast crew. They needed a host, a couple of analysts and a play-by-play announcer.

"They did a great job educating us on an area we didn’t know much about. What was really evident was the passion they had ‐ one for hockey, and another for Indigenous communities and the culture." – Sportsnet vice–president Rob Corte

That presented a challenge. There are about 100,000 Cree speakers across the continent, split between five broad and largely mutually intelligible regional dialects, but few veteran broadcasters speak Cree. APTN producers knew they would have to think outside the box to fill out the on-air team.

So the network began running an advertisement asking for people to audition. Around the same time, longtime sports producer Doug Howe began reaching out to his contacts, casting about for suggestions.

Chabot was the easiest part of the puzzle to fit. The NHL alumnus had previously worked with Howe. When the producer called to pitch him on the idea of doing analysis that would be translated into Cree, Chabot was quick to sign on.

"It was such an interesting concept," he says.

Soon, options for the Cree-speaking hosts began to trickle in. Iron’s friends peppered his Facebook messages with links to the ad; they were more excited about it than he was, he says. Chamakese saw the ad and thought it was an intriguing idea, but came aboard only when Howe reached out to him directly.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Peguis Community members and event attendees join together and watch as the Hometown Hockey program is broadcast from the mobile studio inside of Peguis First Nation.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files

Peguis Community members and event attendees join together and watch as the Hometown Hockey program is broadcast from the mobile studio inside of Peguis First Nation.

Wood found out about the opportunity through word of mouth, and his daughters urged him to apply. He had just come from a sweat lodge and was feeling loose and ready, so he turned on a camera, spoke a little Cree with his signature flamboyant delivery and sent the video to APTN producers.

"I’ve always been like that," he says, flashing a mischievous grin. "I’ve always been like the leaves. When the wind blows, I’ll ruffle. And if the wind blows strong enough, I’ll go with the wind, like that."

With the broadcast team assembled, the next step was to get them learning the ropes. The three Cree-speaking hosts had little experience with the peculiar dance of producing live television, and the learning curve was steep. Meanwhile, Howe was also mulling over what the tenor of the broadcast should be.

"One of the things I worried about as a producer was, what are we trying to do here?" Howe says. "Are we trying to do Hometown Hockey and mirror what those guys do, but just do it in Cree? Or are we trying to do something else?"

One way or another, they were about to find out.


To understand what it means to do an NHL hockey broadcast in Cree, you have to start with the first one. It was March 24, 2019, and Rogers Hometown Hockey had rolled into Enoch Cree Nation, a community of about 2,800 members situated on the west edge of Edmonton.

It was a historic moment, the first time in five years and 121 community visits that the popular Sunday show and festival had landed in a First Nation. The show had prepared a whole slate of events to feature Cree culture and history and its links to hockey, including a round dance and interviews with Cree athletes and leaders.

As the day’s events wheeled towards showtime, even its veteran hosts felt the weight of the moment. Ron MacLean remembers looking towards Stephen Buffalo, a business leader who’d helped take the show to Enoch, and seeing him standing alone watching the events unfold, his eyes shining with pride.

"I spent the whole weekend bawling my eyes out," host Tara Slone says, chatting in the mobile broadcast studio shortly before going live for Hockey Night in Canada in Peguis. "We’re all feeling this incredible pressure, it’s this landmark broadcast. There’s obviously, not a heaviness to it, but there’s a gravitas to the situation."

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Minutes before showtime, Earl Wood sits ready to introduce the Hometown Hockey in Cree broadcast.</p>

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Minutes before showtime, Earl Wood sits ready to introduce the Hometown Hockey in Cree broadcast.

What was notable about the broadcast is just how rare it is for a First Nation to be shown in such a celebratory spotlight, especially when it comes to sport achievement. This is not for lack of stories to tell. Hockey has long flourished in Indigenous communities, and roughly 80 Indigenous players have made the NHL.

"We’re naturally good hockey players," Wood says, grinning. "We’re competitive. We bring that warrior spirit into it, and that mâmawohkamâtowin — that’s when you help each other, you work together. So it actually brings us back to some of the value-based systems that we used to have, prior to the interruption of the contact with the visitors."

Wood knows this first-hand. For six years, he attended the Blue Quills residential school, about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. At that school was an outdoor rink, nothing fancy, just boards and some ice. At night, the boys would go out and play hockey, keeping their own running commentary, scoring highlight-reel goals under the stars.

"Hockey was an escape from that reality," Wood says. "We could transcend ourselves to another space and place, become somebody else. All of a sudden you were Darryl Sittler. All of a sudden you were somebody else. All of a sudden we were just on this ice and there was nothing beyond the perimeter of this cheap little rink.

"But it was so beautiful to us, ‘cause it had some lights, and it seemed like you were at Madison Square Garden or something. When I think back on it, I’m sure that it had a lot to do with keeping that cohesion to that authentic self that went dormant when we went in there. It kept me from completely going insane, I would have to say that."

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Rogers APTN Hometown Hockey in Cree play-by-play announcer Clarence Iron in the studio during a broadcast.</p>

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Rogers APTN Hometown Hockey in Cree play-by-play announcer Clarence Iron in the studio during a broadcast.

This is a common story. Fred Sasakamoose, the first treaty status player in the NHL, started playing the game at residential school in the 1940s, where a priest from Montreal assembled a provincial midget championship team. Sasakamoose went on to become a lauded builder of sport opportunities for Indigenous youth.

But for generations, the story hockey was telling about itself did not include that reality. When hockey mythmakers such as Don Cherry praised the grit that came out of rural Canadian rinks, they weren’t thinking about the reserves up the road or through the bush. They weren’t thinking about places like Peguis First Nation.

And when Brady Keeper from Pimicikamak Cree Nation made his NHL debut with the Florida Panthers last season, the news stories that followed often framed his success as coming despite growing up on a remote First Nation — "despite" the struggles its people had endured, "despite" the pain the community had shouldered.

But Keeper’s own words told a different story: success because of where he was from. Because of the backyard rink his father built. Because of his early days skating on the First Nation’s minor teams. Because of his time with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard, and the support from home that kept him moving forward.

Those stories were, and are, happening all over North America. For years, they just weren’t given a spotlight.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>The Rogers Hometown Hockey event at Peguis First Nation attracted residents of all ages, including Laiden Sutherland who joined in a game of ball hockey.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

The Rogers Hometown Hockey event at Peguis First Nation attracted residents of all ages, including Laiden Sutherland who joined in a game of ball hockey.

"Canada has always portrayed itself as a beautiful mosaic," Wood says. "And I think as Indigenous people, they tried to make us the smallest part of that mosaic picture, that they don’t want it to be seen."

That lack of representation goes beyond sports. Most Canadians rarely see positive or, even, simple everyday images of Indigenous communities. Journalists rarely visit First Nations except to report on tragedy or trauma. The full scope and depth of the culture, history and hope that may thrive there is given far less ink.

In that light, Sportsnet’s slate of programming offers a uniquely powerful lens. On an average Sunday through the NHL season, Hometown Hockey brings in 1.8 million viewers. On Feb. 29, when MacLean led the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast from Peguis, seven million tuned in, the second-highest ratings of the season.

When was the last time seven million Canadians turned on the TV to see a First Nation shown in a celebratory light? What other media vehicles even exist in Canada that carry such a broad spotlight? None immediately come to mind: Peguis has never seen anything like that level of attention, Chief Glenn Hudson says.

"Hockey is king here in Peguis, and this being hockey, it’s a great, great day for us," Hudson says, talking before the broadcast last month. "It showcases our community, and it showcases Treaty 1. it also puts our best foot forward in terms of who we are as a people, our culture, our traditions and the heritage of our community."

"We’re naturally good hockey players. We’re competitive. We bring that warrior spirit into it, and that mâmawohkamâtowin ‐ that’s when you help each other, you work together." – Earl Wood

So that first Hometown Hockey broadcast in Enoch Cree Nation last season was a momentous occasion. As the day unfolded, with its busy slate of festival events, Slone and MacLean were awestruck at the warmth of the community’s embrace. Then, as the clock ticked towards puck-drop, it was time for more history to be made.

In Winnipeg, the four faces of the Cree broadcast took their places around the studio desk. They had spent days rehearsing, trying to master the controlled chaos of live TV, growing accustomed to the voices of producers giving directions in their earpieces. Still, as their national debut inched closer, they were nervous.

"You’re live on national TV," Chamakese was thinking. "Do not mess it up."

They didn’t mess it up, at least not in ways that mattered. The broadcast was imperfect, but it was, Chabot says, "70 per cent better" than what they had done in rehearsal.

It was also euphoric: Iron calls it a miracle. Wood describes it as feeling like "coming out of a sundance, coming out of a sweat. It was like feeling you were reborn."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Lawrence Sutherland, a longtime fan and a former hockey coach, enjoys the festivities in Peguis.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Lawrence Sutherland, a longtime fan and a former hockey coach, enjoys the festivities in Peguis.

Social media lit up as people tuned in. Some were Cree speakers who revelled to hear the language narrating an NHL game. Others were learners. Many were just supporters from a wide range of backgrounds, wanting to cheer Indigenous languages taking a historic step on national TV.

In Enoch, Slone and MacLean watched the simulcast alongside some of their Hometown Hockey guests, including Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild. They’d been nervous for the APTN hosts, MacLean says, hoping they’d do well. Now, they looked on in delight as the high-spirited Cree hosts began to steal the show.

"We threw to them at 7 o’clock, and we’re sort of sombre," Slone says. "Then Earl comes on, with his colourfulness and... the buoyant energy that they all possess, and it lightened the mood. It helped us. Watching Wilton Littlechild and Stephen Buffalo and (hockey player) Shane Peacock watch that broadcast in Plains Cree was like…"

Here, she puts her hand to her chest, her voice catching in her throat.

"Us being in Enoch to begin with was a big deal, and the power of people hearing that in their language for the first time, that resonated."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Marge Sinclair and other Peguis residents embrace their Hometown Hockey moment.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Marge Sinclair and other Peguis residents embrace their Hometown Hockey moment.

Ensconced in the APTN studio, the Cree simulcast hosts weren’t fully aware of the ripples the show was making.

"Because of the fact we didn’t know if there would be a future, we didn’t realize the effect it would have until after it was done," Chabot says. "As we moved forward, we realized how big it actually was. Pride came into it more and more. But honestly, I just wanted to do a good show, I wanted to do a show that we could be proud of."

During the broadcast, Chamakese kept his phone on silent, but he could feel the desk vibrating as it buzzed with incoming texts and Facebook mentions. When he got back to his hotel that night, he let all those messages wash over him, marvelling at the outpouring of emotion flowing from across the continent.

For Chamakese, it was an especially emotional moment. Five years earlier, he suffered a major stroke and spent five months in hospital. To this day, he credits the Cree language in his healing; the language is at the heart of the ceremonies and the prayers people held every day for him, from which he took strength.

"To go from being on life-support in a coma to being on national TV, it just hit me," he says. "I couldn’t believe the amount of gratitude I had that night, when I got to finally read the posts and what people were saying. The pride they had. The pride I had personally, to go from where I was to where I am now, is something else.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Loud Eagle Drum Group leads the round dance.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Loud Eagle Drum Group leads the round dance.

"I couldn’t believe it. It seemed surreal, it really did."

There is one post in particular he remembers. It was a photo of an older woman sitting with her back to the camera, watching the broadcast. The photo came with a caption, which explained that in residential school she hadn’t been allowed to speak her language. Now she was beaming to hear it spoken on national TV.

"That really, really got me," Chamakese says. "After I read that, I lost it. My eyes leaked. My screen went blurry.... To be part of that, a little cog in that wheel, that’s something that I will forever have, something that can never be taken from me. This small part of history."


Hockey has a language of its own, all sports do. Fans learn these tongues the same way children do. By immersion, soaking in the lingo as it flows from broadcasters and reporters. From coaches and players. Or simply from friends or relatives who already know the game.

So the slip of the the skates conjured in the mind by the word "deke," the angle of a "top-shelf" shot, the cannon blast of a "one-timer," these are all terms that give hockey its texture. English has had more than a century of NHL broadcasts to negotiate the meanings of its jargon; there have been just five such games in Cree.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Clarence Iron (left) and Earl Wood play hockey with Peguis children.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Clarence Iron (left) and Earl Wood play hockey with Peguis children.

That adds a unique challenge — and opportunity — to the work that Iron, Chamakese and Wood must do. They are not simply translators. With languages that are closely related, or share a great deal of vocabulary, it is possible to get close to a word-for-word swap, but English and Cree are as disparate as two tongues can be.

This difference goes right down to their basic structure. English demands a rigid word order to convey meaning; Cree speakers convey thoughts through a nuanced system of prefixes and suffixes. Words can shift position for emphasis, as their meaning grows and unfurls like the branches of a tree.

These features and others make Cree a natural storyteller’s language, vivid and suffused with movement. It was adapted over thousands of years to describe the territories on which it echoes and the culture of the people who speak it. The language is famous for its humour, which is also infamously hard to convey in English.

"One word in Cree, as soon as you say it, you’ll understand that it’s almost like a concept," Chamakese says. "It would take a paragraph to a paragraph-and-a-half to translate, or 10 minutes to translate, but in Cree you can just say it in one word, and it just sums it up and you know exactly what you’re talking about."

So to translate anything from English to Cree presents one challenge. To translate from hockey-talk to English to Cree presents another. To make matters trickier, Chamakese is not, by his own account, a diehard hockey guy; some of Chabot’s insider lingo takes some careful thinking to untangle.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Clarence Iron always dreamed of play-by-play announcing, but never imagined it would be in Cree.</p>

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Clarence Iron always dreamed of play-by-play announcing, but never imagined it would be in Cree.

"This is a way I’ve never spoken before," Chamakese says. "Say, for instance, the term, (John) said a term the other day that confused the hell out of me: ‘game in hand.’ (He) said that live on air, and I had to be like, ‘OK, what does that mean?’ I’m not a hockey person, I’ve never played hockey in my life."

After some quick thinking, he settled on explaining, in Cree, something like "they’ve still yet to play another time."

This creativity extends to Iron’s play-by-play. In his call, the net is ayapiy, a fishnet; the glass around the boards is wâsênamân, a window; the word for goalie means "he is keeping the door." For "puck," they settled on a word that describes an object that is round and flat, capturing the essence of the thing in one breath.

To call the action, Iron leans into the motion inherent in Cree verbs. The effect is animated and vibrant.

"It’s a little different because you’re describing it," Iron says. "So, ‘there’s a hard hit’ in English. But you’re describing it like, He hits him real hard, he hung him up against the glass.’ Everything is descriptive in Cree. ‘He comes through the blue line, dancing in there.’ Nîmihitow, dancing. They’re little descriptive words that people like. They laugh."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>The round dance drew community members young and old.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

The round dance drew community members young and old.

Iron is a natural at capturing hockey’s breakneck action. He got his start in the mid-1990s, when the CEO of MBC Radio in La Ronge, Sask., asked him to try calling games at a local tournament; he was so good that he kept it up for years, narrating games between teams from places such as La Ronge and North Battleford.

Sometimes, he mixed a few Cree words into the chatter, but not often. He modelled his call after the greats, such as the late Hockey Night in Canada legends Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan, who was his favourite; he dreamed that one day he would get his own crack at calling an NHL game.

In this dream, he was calling the game in English. It was simply too hard to imagine being asked to call it in Cree.

Once, at a small rink in northern Saskatchewan, a CBC crew out for a tournament listened to Iron’s call, and told him they’d hear him on Hockey Night in Canada one day. At the time Iron, who also worked as a maintenance and heavy equipment operator in Saskatchewan mines, found it hard to believe.

He’d been through a lot in his life. He’d wrestled with addiction and done time in prison. But he’d had people who believed in him, and he’d hung onto his language. Above all, he found a light in his Christian faith, which helped him find a path forward.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Jason Chamakese: ‘One word in Cree... that it’s almost like a concept.’</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Jason Chamakese: ‘One word in Cree... that it’s almost like a concept.’

"I try to be positive, positive, positive in whatever I do," Iron says. "I’ve struggled in life. I know what it takes. When I see these people out here on the streets, I was there. I’m no better than anybody else. But now I am on the top of here" — he raises his hand just above his head — "because of the love of God."

Now, he is living his dream, right where that CBC crew said he would be. As a child, he once told APTN, he spoke Cree to himself at residential school, to keep it comfortable on his tongue; there was no way he could have known then where that tenacity, and some faith, would eventually take him.

"If you write it down, make sure you put the name Jesus there," he says. "Because he’s my saviour."

Yes, a reporter promises, she will.


Outside the APTN studio on Portage Avenue, downtown Winnipeg glints in the slushy damp of late winter. The streets are silent, save for the occasional groan of a mostly empty passing bus or the shuffling footsteps of a pedestrian hustling towards somewhere else.

The minutes tick towards showtime. In the APTN newsroom, Iron emerges from the green room and straightens his buckskin vest; he’s ready to have his picture taken now, he says. In the studio, Wood flattens his palms on the desk, practising his intro over and over again. Chabot jaunts around the room, offering high-fives to the crew.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p> When the Hometown Hockey festival in Peguis revved up with an all-Indigenous NHL alumni game, the First Nation’s radio station broadcast the match in Ojibwa.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

When the Hometown Hockey festival in Peguis revved up with an all-Indigenous NHL alumni game, the First Nation’s radio station broadcast the match in Ojibwa.

They have come a long way from where they were just one year ago, when they made history with the first Cree-language NHL broadcast. Iron has the play-by-play under control. Wood has begun to master how to ensure the broadcasters wrap up their discussions in time for advertising breaks or the end of the show.

"I trust them now," producer Howe says. "They can do it, they just needed a chance. There’s room to grow. How many games has Ron MacLean done? Thousands. Earl’s on his fourth game. He’s doing great. These guys, they realize that, too. They don’t think they know it all already, by any stretch of the imagination."

They have time to learn. True, hockey was cut short this season — their last broadcast was scheduled tonight but it was just the first of a three-year deal with Sportsnet, which guarantees at least six Cree games a season. Whenever NHL skates hit the ice again, this crew will be back to cover them.

It may well grow beyond that. As the Cree broadcast becomes more polished, Sportsnet is open to expanding the APTN partnership to feature other Indigenous languages. So far, network brass have been impressed by what the crew has brought to the simulcast, and are keen to see where else it can go.

"I think they’re tremendous," Corte says. "I absolutely love their energy, and their passion. It’s off the charts. I don’t understand what they’re saying, but I can sit and watch the game and I’m entertained. A big part of our equation is entertainment. If it’s dry and boring, (fans are) not going to watch. And (the hosts) are not that."

That energy lifts Indigenous languages with it. When the Hometown Hockey festival in Peguis revved up with an all-Indigenous NHL alumni game, the First Nation’s radio station broadcast the match in Ojibwa, which Chief Hudson says had never been done in Peguis before.

In his travels as a musician and conference speaker, Chamakese has begun fielding questions about the language.

"I have had a couple people come up and say, ‘How do you say this word?’" he says. "From there they’ll say, ‘OK, all right, I’m going to try to build on that, and by the time I talk to you again, I want to have a complete sentence, that will hopefully lead to a complete conversation one day down the road.’"

The youth, too, seem to be listening. At home in Saddle Lake, Wood says, kids often rush up to him, trying out a few words of Cree and giving impromptu auditions of their broadcasting skills. "That’s beautiful, nephew," he replies. He tries to make them feel like they are part of the show. That is what all of this is about, he explains.

"Us hosts, we are not celebrities," he says. "We’re oskâpêwisak, we’re those guys that help around the ceremony. We have the responsibility to present ourselves in the beauty, the strength and the coherency of our people so the ones who are coming behind us, they can go further than us. That’s what I believe."

There are just seconds left now until the broadcast begins. Everyone is in their places. In the host’s chair, Wood leans forward a little, the leather fringe tied to his black braids grazing the edge of the desk. He turns his face to a camera, cocks an eyebrow upwards, and waits. The studio settles into an electrified silence.

The lights go up. "Thirty seconds," a producer calls out, then 20, then 10, and then...

"Tansi, tawow," Wood announces. Hello and welcome. And across Canada, the Cree words of greeting echo again.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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