Beyond the win

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One young Cree athlete’s participation at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) last July represented a milestone that she never expected to see.

An avid basketball player since the age of 12, Montana Kitchen fell in love with the game while attending private school, and participated in numerous tournaments across the Cree Nation and other Canadian cities. The 18-year-old and her sister India Kitchen also enjoyed the luxury of having an in-house coach, with their father John having served as a bench boss with the Waswanipi Wildfires.

However, like so many young people from First Nations communities, Montana has endured an ongoing struggle with depression, and was hospitalized during last year’s Eastern Door and North NAIG tryouts following her third attempt at suicide.

High rates of suicide among Canada’s First Nations youth have reached alarming levels – a trend that reached an epidemic last year in the troubled community of Attawapiskat, where a suspected 11 suicide attempts were made within one 24-hour period, leading the band council to declare a state of emergency.

The communities of Eeyou Istchee represent a model of stability in comparison to Attawapiskat. But suicide remains a concern among the James Bay Cree, with the rates of hospitalization for suicide attempts more than double the provincial average in Quebec, according to a study by the Cree Health Board.

Already saddled with doubt as to her ability to qualify for the ED&N squad, Montana held out little hope of making the team and participating in her first international event.

“At first, I wasn’t into trying out for a team because I thought I would get cut,” said Montana in a conversation with the Nation.

After being scouted during a game at an Eeyou Istchee community tournament, Montana, along with sister India, Jenna Ottereyes and Gisele Visitor, attended an ED&N camp in Wendake, where they impressed enough to advance to the second round of tryouts. But hopes of continuing through the selection camps were put on hold when Montana was admitted to a Montreal-area hospital for a week-long stay to receive treatment for her life-threatening depression.

“I was sure I wouldn’t make the second round,” explained Montana, who was eager to discuss her battle with depression. Montana also makes no bones about how important participation in organized sports has been for her recovery. “As I was recovering, I still continued to train when I got home. Finally, in early September, my sister and I made the team. I was so happy. I didn’t think I had it in me.”

With a position on the ED&N 19U female squad locked up, Montana and India kicked their training into high gear this past February, participating in regular practices with the squad, and hitting the court in five prep tournaments prior to competing in Toronto.

Finally, the two sisters from Waswanipi joined Ottereyes and Visitor as part of the Cree contingent on the ED&N squad at the NAIG, held across the Greater Toronto Area July 16-23.

The team struggled against some stiff competition in the early going, however. The ED&N women opened with a punishing 110-15 loss to an Alberta squad that would go on to claim the silver medal at the competition.

Things got no easier for the ED&N ladies in lopsided losses to British Columbia and Wisconsin, which captured the bronze medal. But the squad finished strong in its final outing of the Games while dropping a heartbreaking 35-32 decision to Nova Scotia.

Despite the challenges, the NAIG experience was a good one for Montana, both for her development as an athlete and on a personal level, providing her with a healthy boost of confidence on and off the court.

With the fall/winter basketball season fast approaching, Montana is eager to continue bringing her game to new levels. She is also placing increased emphasis on education as she seeks to pick up the adult education credits she needs to complete her GED and later attend college.

Perhaps more important is sharing the story of the struggles she has had with mental illness, and helping other young people who are burdened with this often misunderstood condition.

“Playing basketball has been important to my ongoing recovery. It helps to get things out of my mind, relieve stress, and improve my mood,” said Montana.

Montana’s comments echo numerous research reports that have found active participation in sports can help relieve the symptoms of depression. But Montana is also eager to share her experience with other young people suffering from depression, who may be unsure of where to turn.

“Accept the help that is given to you,” urges Montana. “Stay around the people who you trust, and the people who love and care for you. Keep yourself busy and try new things. It’s good to try to accomplish something in a day, whether it’s doing the dishes or going for a walk.

“If you feel bad, don’t be alone in those feelings and thoughts by locking yourself in your room. And most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

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