Young Alberta football rivals share traditional Cree smudge before kickoff

Prior to smashing and bashing each other in an all-female battle in Spruce Grove Thursday, linebacker Alicia Gladue led both teams in something rarely seen on a football field.

Before kickoff - Gladue, a young Cree and Dene woman from Northern Alberta - gathered all players and coaches in a circle, where she lit a traditional Indigenous smudge for both teams to share.

“I just bless my body. (With the smoke) I go over my head so I can think good things, go to my ears so I can hear good things, go to my mouth so I can say good things,” Gladue explained.

Gladue is a captain with the Fort McKay Northern Spirits, based in the First Nation community about an hour north of Fort McMurray.

Her team travelled to the Fuhr Sports Park west of Edmonton, for a game with the West Edmonton Raiders Thursday night.

“It’s gets my anger out. It’s good for my mental and physical health,” Gladue said of football.

And a smudge, she said, puts her in the right mind to compete.

“It could be a blessing, or it could be to let go of the negativity. I think it’s good to calm yourself with good vibes,” she explained.

'EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY PROUD'

The idea of sharing the smudge came after Raiders coach Ryan Schulha asked his opponents about a ceremony he saw at a game a few weeks earlier.

“They were extremely, extremely proud to extend an invitation to allow us to come and learn a little bit and join the smudge circle. I’m very excited to learn more about their culture and have football be that catalyst,” Schulha said.

A coach of both girls and boys teams, Schulha believes football leaders should always be striving to be more inclusive. He called Thursday’s ceremony an “opportunity” for his players to learn and grow respect for Indigenous people.

“Do we have a long way to go? Yeah. We know that, but every little bit and every step forward helps.”

Northern Spirits coach Dylan Elias lets his players decide when and how to smudge, and was proud they chose to share with their opponents on Thursday.

“I think there’s been a lot of negativity in the news in the last couple of months especially around residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Elias, who is Metis, said.

“So I think for the other team to reach out and want to be part of the ceremony, is really important for bringing people together, and if this thing is going to work we gotta come together as humans, and that’s what the sport of football does.”

Racism on the field is something Elias said his team has “felt” before but Thursday’s ceremony was a an important step.

The Northern Spirits are a new team, and with the closest field an hour away, it’s not an easy commitment. Elias said his girls are growing in pride, both in their play and in sharing their culture.

“After a football camp we had in 2019, there was a big push from the kids in the community. They wanted their own team.”

Feeling different on a football field is not new to Raiders running back Camryn Lauer. It’s a male-dominated sport, and inclusivity is still a work in progress, she said.

So Lauer was happy to take part in the smudge and learn more about her opponents.

“I will say it’s better just because we do get these opportunities, but there’s still more to work on. Being a female in the sport of football can be difficult sometimes, but it’s growing and it’s getting better,” Lauer said.