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Cultural significance of Haida basketball subject of film being shot this week at ANBT

Filmmaker hopes to debut documentary at 2024 Toronto International Film Festival
Skidegate’s Desi Collinson, four-time Senior Division MVP, has been a critical part of the Saints’ dynasty that has seen them win 8 of the last 11 titles at the All Native Basketball Tournament and will be the subject of an upcoming documentary. Collinson is seen here moving the ball up-court against the Haisla Braves on Feb. 13. (Ari Wilson/Kids4Cameras, special to The Northern View)

During the dark, rain-filled months of winter, the Skidegate Community Centre on Haida Gwaii becomes a hub for not only basketball, but also a gathering place for the entire village.

Patrick Shannon, writer and director of an upcoming film “Saints and Warriors,” is aiming to capture the importance of basketball to Haida Gwaii, where he grew up and now resides.

While Shannon never played or cared for the sport, his return to Haida Gwaii from Vancouver reminded him of the cultural importance of basketball on the island.

“We’ve got harvesting in the spring and into the summer. We get potlatching into the fall. Then we get basketball season and we start that cycle all over again,” said Shannon.

“This is a story that’s been a part of my life forever, even though I was never a basketball player growing up. That was all the other kids on my reserve.”

Born in Prince Rupert but raised in Skidegate, Shannon has fond memories of coming to the All Native Basketball Tournament (ANBT) in Prince Rupert with his grandmother, where much of the film’s footage will be shot. Shannon is part of the T’aanuu Raven-Wolf clan, and his Haida name is Nang Ḵ’uulas.

For Shannon, basketball is a show of resiliency for a nation that was almost wiped out. Diseases such as smallpox and measles, introduced after colonial contact, reduced the Haida population from tens of thousands to 600, according to the Council of the Haida Nation.

With the six decade-long Potlatch ban, residential schools and the segregation of First Nations onto reserves, basketball became integral for Northwest First Nations, many of whom compete at the ANBT each year. Shannon said connections between First Nations were almost eradicated with the creation of the reserve system — and events such as the ANBT have kept those relationships alive. 

“Not only were we not allowed to gather with our neighbors and different communities, but we weren’t allowed to gather in groups larger than five unless it was a church or sport,” he said.

“So basketball became one of the only ways for Indigenous people to gather back in that dark period of potlatch ban that lasted up until the 1950s.”

READ MORE: First aid staff kept on their toes at the All Native Basketball Tournament

According to Shannon, basketball has brought back community connections on Haida Gwaii that had been lost for decades.

“Basketball has taken on the role that our communities traditionally had ingrained in us when it came to intergenerational knowledge transfer, young people engaging with older people,” he said.

“The Canadian lifestyle, the western lifestyle, is all about separating people — nuclear families, individual houses — where traditionally we‘ve been all communal. We all lived in long houses, we all gathered. It was very intrinsic in our DNA to be connected as people from the home to the nation.”

The Skidegate Saints senior men’s team came into the 2024 ANBT edition as reigning champions, having won eight of the last 11 senior men’s championships. The Saints’ under-21 ANBT team are no pushovers either, having placed second in 2023.

Shannon moved to Vancouver as a teenager and quickly joined the film industry, where he has worked on more than 100 Hollywood television shows in a variety of positions. He moved back to Haida Gwaii in 2013 to look after his grandmother, but now only spends about three months a year at home due to his nomadic work schedule.

With meager opportunities and infrastructure in Haida Gwaii and northwest B.C. in general, Shannon’s move “down south” is a common pattern for youth on Haida Gwaii, though Shannon says this phenomena has slightly shifted in the last decade.

“Growing up between Prince Rupert and Skidegate, if you want to be successful, you want to make something to yourself, you have to leave, go down South,” he said.

“And what happens is that usually people don’t return home.”

The lack of opportunities back home inspired Shannon to create the Haida Gwaii Media Collective, which makes professional-grade film equipment available for rent. Shannon said having resources like this helps keep talented and ambitious youth on the island.

Part of Shannon’s inspiration for the film has been watching the misrepresentation of stories of the Haida and Indigenous people in general. With this film, Shannon hopes to provide an accurate picture of the realities of modern-day Haida people.

“One thing that has been so frustrating is that my whole life it was never Haida people or even Indigenous people telling our stories,” he said. “It was often non-Indigenous folks from Vancouver, Toronto flying in and telling our story, and it’s usually never told correctly, it’s usually misrepresenting or tokenizing.”

Filming for “Saints and Warriors” started in December, and Shannon said there is enough footage to make a five-season television series, making the task of cutting it down to one-and-a-half hours extremely daunting.

Shannon is expecting to have the film ready by this fall, with the hope of airing it at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

READ MORE: “We are a basketball family” Prince Rupert’s mother-daughter trio at ANBT

About the Author: Seth Forward, Local Journalism Initiative

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