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Bemidji High School hosts inaugural Unified Indigenous Games Invitational

Culture and athleticism were on full display at the inaugural Unified Indigenous Games Invitational at Bemidji High School on Tuesday.

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Students from Red Lake High School play games during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at the Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Culture and athleticism were on full display at the inaugural Unified Indigenous Games Invitational at Bemidji High School on Tuesday.

As part of a partnership between Special Olympics Minnesota and Oneida Nation member Dan Ninham, over 120 students from eight high schools from across northern Minnesota took part in several Indigenous activities throughout the morning as a way to share an important part of the culture with students, Native and non-Native alike.

“My role is to share these Indigenous games, and there are several,” Ninham said ahead of the event. “There are different ways to move and (the students) make a connection to Indigenous thinking as they practice these.”

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Dan Ninham leads a station during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

With each school switching between eight stations — led by Bemidji State students in Professor Sherry Holloway’s Developmental Adapted Physical Education program — games included Indigenous versions of tag and pretend canoe paddling. Each station allowed students to make connections to the sociocultural significance of Indigenous physical activities, Ninham added.

“In some areas, we talk about these games in the past tense, and it’s true for some of them but not for others,” Ninham said. “The Indigenous games movement continues, so (this event) is a part of that.”

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Ninham was brought on board as the consultant for Unified Indigenous Games considering his 38 years of teaching before he retired in 2020. Since his retirement, he has continued presenting about Indigenous culture at area schools.

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Participants from Menahga High School practice catching and throwing during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Ninham’s involvement also played into the Special Olympics Minnesota’s goal of creating accepting school environments. Three interconnected components are used to achieve this goal: Special Olympics Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement.

Inclusive ideas

For School Programs Manager Shannon Murray, who oversees all Special Olympics Minnesota events in northern Minnesota, incorporating the Indigenous aspect into Unified Sports is an important part of representing Native American students and cross-cultural learning for non-Indigenous students.

“These are the original inclusive games of this land, so I think it’s really important for us in Special Olympics to learn from that, too,” Murray said.

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Participants play Stickball during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Murray does substitute teaching at TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School, which is where the initial idea to host the Unified Indigenous Games came from.

“I work with some great students at TrekNorth, and they were talking about doing Indigenous games with (Ninham),” Murray recalled. “They asked me, ‘why don’t we do this for Unified?’ It was a great question, so it inspired me to make this happen.”

Nine subsequent months of planning resulted in an event that BHS senior Will Duncan hopes will provide some key takeaways for all students involved, including having fun.

“Just seeing all the new faces, helping with these games and, of course, helping out with planning some stuff,” Duncan said, “what I’m hoping is that we learn and understand the Indigenous tribes who are visiting us … and get these Indigenous games involved in the Special Olympics.”

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Participating high schools included Bemidji High School, Voyageurs Expeditionary School, TrekNorth, Red Lake High School, Park Rapids, Menahga, Grand Rapids and Cloquet.

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Participants from Voyageurs Expeditionary School practice catching and throwing during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at the Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

According to their website, the mission of Special Olympics Minnesota is to “provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools build on this mission by aiming to unify students with and without disabilities through sports, whole school activities and leadership programs in order to promote inclusion, acceptance and respect.

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A participant plays Stickball during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

BHS became the first school in the area to become a Unified Champion School around seven years ago and became the first district in the state to implement Unified programming district-wide last year.

More information can be found at specialolympicsminnesota.org.

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A participant throws a football during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Students from Grand Rapids High School play Stickball at a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Students from Cloquet High School play games during a Unified Indigenous Games Invitational on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at Bemidji High School Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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