Posted Jul 21, 2023 4:10pm ET
Baseball is known as America’s game, but on a foggy Halifax field on Friday there were signs that First Nations and Metis athletes from Canada are increasingly making it their own game.
At the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax, Brandon Beaudin-Herney coached his Saskatchewan team to a 2-1 comeback win over Ontario and captured the bronze medal in the under-19 youth tournament.
When his athletes presented team captain Tegan Nahnepowisk with a birthday cake on the home plate, the coach described a connection between Indigenous values and baseball.
“Sport is the heart and soul of most First Nations communities. He brings people together, brings the community together,” said Beaudin-Herney, a former US junior college player who runs an emergency shelter in Regina.
“With this team, we have a community of people who care about the game, who respect the game, who respect each other, and that aligns with core indigenous values,” said the 29-year-old coach, whose father is Mi’kmaq and mother is Saulteaux.
“We have kids from urban communities and kids from reservations, and they’re a good match.”
Over 100 Indigenous and Metis athletes and about 20 coaches swung racquets at Beazley Field in the Halifax suburb of Dartmouth this week, often in front of a large and rowdy crowd of around 200 people.
Among them are a growing number of elite athletes, which Herney-Beaudin attributes to support from both Indigenous organizations and non-Indigenous baseball organizers who serve Metis and Indigenous athletes.
One of the first generation of Native American baseball players selected for a National Junior College Athletic Association team, Beaudin-Herney played for several years in Monterey, California.
Today, many of the best Indigenous Games players play at colleges in Canada and the United States.
In Friday’s gold medal game, Manitoba catcher Cody Gunderson, who plays for a junior collegiate team in Hutchinson, Kansas, was deliberately kicked four times by a Wisconsin team fearing his punching power. However, thanks to stunning pitching and smooth play on the field, his team was able to secure an 11-0 victory.
18-year-old Gunderson, a Métis from Saint Malo, Man., said in an interview he hopes to be selected to play at a higher level. “It’s nice when children look up to me and ask questions. Hopefully that will help them as it has helped me,” he said.
Teammate Ryder Duncan, who is also a Metis, said: “As you can see, there are a lot of Metis players in our sport and it’s good to have a community to go to and feel supported by.”
Beaudin-Herney said the Indigenous Games are all part of a broader development of the sport.
“We’re trying to get more representation for Indigenous communities (in baseball) and that starts with the North American Indigenous Games where we’re highlighting these players and looking at them from small and top-tier (baseball) directors,” he said.
As Friday’s bronze medal game played out, the 29-year-old coach’s playing experience showed as he calmly instructed his second baseman to catch a runner and hit a run to equalize.
Beaudin-Herney said part of his coaching approach is to introduce Indigenous cultural practices to young athletes.
“One of my goals is to really reconnect with who you are as an indigenous person and find yourself. The boys have embraced it and love it,” he said.
There were morning incense and pipe ceremonies. “We wanted to make a team sweat, but we couldn’t do it,” said Beaudin-Herney, referring to the sweat lodge cleansing ceremony.
Beaudin-Herney’s mother, Erica Beaudin, the leader of Cowess’s First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, said in an interview that baseball teams draw from the growing number of softball and fastball leagues in Indigenous communities.
She said that in the boarding school era, there was little support for indigenous youth sports, so sports that required minimal equipment, such as basketball and baseball, were more readily adopted.
But she added that Indigenous baseball players continue to face a cap as they reach the sport’s elite levels and that travel and equipment costs for parents are beginning to rise.
She said that’s changing given the broader development of Indigenous athletics, support from provincial programs and a growing view that baseball aligns well with First Nations values.
“Baseball is very simple. It develops sportiness and character,” she said.
The last sports competitions of the games end on Saturday.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 21, 2023.