By Neale McDevitt
People often say sports can forge character. But for Allan Downey of the Nak’azdli First Nation and a newly hired academic associate in Indigenous Studies at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), it goes even deeper than that.
“Lacrosse was my gateway,” he says, just weeks into his new position at MISC. “It was my bridge to an education. It’s unbelievable to me the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the communities I’ve been welcomed to all because of this game, because of this stick.
“My career, my research, the travelling and presentations – without lacrosse and the support of my Aboriginal community, I would have none of this,” he says.
In his own words, Downey “struggled” in school growing up in Waterloo, Ont. But he excelled in box lacrosse, a form of the game played in a hockey arena. Out of high school, Downey earned a lacrosse scholarship to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn., in 2003. At Mercyhurst, he had to translate his box lacrosse skills and apply them to the more widely played field version. Downey didn’t just adapt, he excelled and was named captain of the team.
Where passions collide
But a funny thing happened on his way to a pro lacrosse career (he was drafted by the Arizona Sting in the National Lacrosse League in 2007) – Downey fell in love with learning at Mercyhurst when he discovered his passion for history, a passion, he says, that had been fostered by his family. “My grandfather had been a history teacher and a principal and my dad also had a great love for history,” says Downey, “so I was raised going to historic sites and watching a lot of documentaries. But in terms of my career, I think the key moment was when I merged my passion for history and my passion for lacrosse.”
That moment came while Downey was doing his MA in history at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he wrote his thesis on the history of Six Nations lacrosse from 1840–1990. This past spring, Downey successfully defended his PhD dissertation that built upon his earlier work. The dissertation, which will be published in book form by the University of British Columbia, focuses on the history of lacrosse in Aboriginal communities from 1867-1990, to better understand Native-Newcomer relations.
“You can trace lacrosse to the majority of all parts of North America where, for many Indigenous cultures, the game is central to their identity,” says Downey. The Haudenosaunee people believe that lacrosse has been here since the beginning of time. They call it the Creator’s Game and that, as a gift from the Creator, it has the power to heal.”
At McGill, Downey will teach Introduction to Indigenous Studies, one of the core courses in MISC’s fledgling Minor Undergraduate Program in Indigenous Studies. Aimed at undergraduates across the Faculty of Arts, the program will provide students with an interdisciplinary exposure to issues in Indigenous Studies. Downey says the program is in response to a strong and persistent demand over recent years. “It was really headed by undergraduate students, MISC and First Peoples’ House,” he says. “It is one of those cases where a movement just kept gaining momentum and has resulted in something very positive.
“It’s really hard to put into words how excited I am because what we’re seeing is more and more Canadians being open to changing their relationship with Indigenous communities,” he says. “In order for this positive relationship change to take place we have to understand the roots of how that relationship has gone so sour. I think there’s a real opportunity here to start bringing more Indigenous worldviews into our academic settings and into our cities, into our non-Indigenous communities so that greater understanding can take place.”
And Downey is all about trying to effect positive change. In discovering his love of academia – specifically his love of Indigenous history – he didn’t withdraw into a life of sequestered research. Instead, he has become an active and vocal advocate for Indigenous youth, frequently speaking in communities to tell his story.
“I tell them I was struggling and not always the best student, but that lacrosse opened the doors to so many opportunities. I feel both very lucky and very privileged,” says Downey. “But I remind them that it’s not specifically about lacrosse. It’s about finding your passion and following that passion and seeing where that will take you. Like me, you could be amazed at where you end up.”
Although lacrosse is still a popular sport in Indigenous communities, Downey also use his outreach work to reintroduce them to the historical aspect of the game, and to a certain extent, an important part of their cultural identity that has eroded over time. “For various reasons, a lot of communities have forgotten some of the traditional stories or that their family ancestors played the game of lacrosse,” says Downey. “I try to give pieces of that history back to people.
Giving back to the community
“So much knowledge has been taken out of our communities going back at least 100 years when there were researchers going into communities and taking inherited knowledge or sensitive knowledge and sharing it with the world without permission,” says Downey. “Then, of course, we had the history of residential schools which was basically teaching Indigenous people not to be Indigenous and to turn away from their identities, language and culture.
“I think it’s time we start bringing that knowledge and that sense of identity back to the community,” he says.
Often, his outreach work brings him to correctional facilities for Indigenous youth. Again, he uses his own story to try and inspire people to find their path. “These are youths who have been disempowered. I try to reconnect with an important cultural element – lacrosse – as a way to look at bigger issues like setting goals and developing life skills. If they can do this, when they get of the correctional facility, they can become leaders in their communities and make positive lifestyle changes.
“What better way to get through to them than with the healing game?”