Brittany Williams remembers winning MVP at the All Native Basketball Tournament when she was 22.
She was holding her two-year-old daughter Kionah like a trophy, and her mom Karen White was watching from the stands.
She grew up with a hoop in the driveway, and basketball in her blood.
“I had no clue what my mom was a part of,” said Brittany. “And once I started getting out there people kept saying ‘You’re Karen White’s daughter, we see why you’re doing so well.’”
Now, with Kionah – a third generation is taking up the family legacy.
Basketball is huge for many First Nations people across British Columbia, but playing is about more than just the game; it’s about community pride, wellness and cross-cultural connections.
“It reminds me of the earlier winter gatherings that used to happen up and down the coast in terms of both the potlatch feast cycles but also in the kind of dance societies that some academics called secret societies,” said Charles Menzies, professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia who released a film called Basketball Warriors last year.
“These cut across families, cut across communities, and people traveled all up and down the coast.”
First Nations gatherings like potlatches were made illegal by the Canadian government for over half a century.
“The only way you could gather as a First Nations person was in a church service or a sporting event,” said Menzies.
“It has to do with finding the need, the ways to connect,” said Menzies. “A lot of work gets done, a lot of cultural work, a lot of political work … it’s not just a sporting event, it’s a much bigger thing.”
White also won MVP at the All Native when she was 22 and was thrilled to see her daughter Brittany follow in her footsteps. She has high hopes her granddaughter will do the same.
From playing basketball in the fifth grade, White eventually found her way onto the team at Vancouver Island University and later formed an All Native team in Nanaimo which she said dominated.
Soon after she started a family and shared her love of sport.
“My first girl was born with disabilities and couldn’t play basketball. And then my son played some basketball. But Brittany was my all-star girl and she did really, really well,” said White.
“The love of sport (I passed down) to my kids was to stop the cycle of abuses and have a really healthy, healthy lifestyle.”
“And I’m really proud I was able to do that for my children and my granddaughter.”
While sport is good for mental health and well-being it is a huge part of many Indigenous people’s healing journey.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dedicated five of the 94 Calls to Action to sport and reconciliation — one of which mentioned “ensuring policies promote physical activity as a fundamental element of health and well-being.”
And that’s exactly what basketball has done for the White-Williams family.
“Basketball is very important to help our kids not go on the wayward sides with addictions,” said White. “I’m very proud of my kids, they’ve stayed healthy and strong, all play sports and understand their culture wherever they go.”
Not only wanting to pass on her passion for basketball, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Coast Salish grandmother also wanted to pass on the culture that comes with playing the sport in B.C.
“I work really, really hard with my kids to keep them busy,” she said. “Keeping them in sport, keeping them in their culture and staying balanced.”
“I consider us a really, really good role model family, and that’s so important within our community.”
That passion for basketball and staying healthy now spans three generations.
“Basketball and sport changes lives, a lot of kids need that structure, they need something to look forward to,” said Brittany. “I worry about the mental health of kids … let’s get in the gym, let’s shoot some hoops.”
Thanks to White, Brittany grew up around basketball, taking shots in the driveway, playing at the local youth centre and spending what spare time she had on the court.
“Basketball is such a big part of our lives, it’s just something that’s come very naturally to me,” she said. “So I enjoy playing it, I enjoy coaching, I enjoy teaching Kionah how to play the game, it’s just something we take pride in.”
During the pandemic, Brittany founded the local Cowichan girls’ team. She said many of them had never shot a ball let alone dribbled but needed something to do to stay healthy.
“We were practicing outside, and last year we took the team to Kelowna (for the JR All Native),” said Brittany. “We lost in the finals, which was very tough, but I said that it’ll just make us want it more next year.”
This year they won.
While winning is of course a big part of it, the best part for Brittany is seeing her daughter, Kionah, shine.
“Now that I’m coaching, being able to bring my daughter to these tournaments and see the culture … that part of it is just unreal,” she said.
“Seeing my daughter thriving in basketball, one year at the All Native, hopefully, I can play with her too.”
Just wrapping up eighth grade, Kionah has also wrapped up her first year as a starter on her high school’s senior girls basketball team.
With a mom like Brittany and grandmother like White, it isn’t much of a surprise that the 13-year-old is rubbing elbows with the best. She knows she has a big legacy to uphold.
“I hear lots of things about how good they were and how they all expect me to be so good … it just pushes me even more,” said Kionah.
“I’m excited for one year maybe to play with my mom or even my grandma possibly and like, just all play together and continue that legacy.”
While the pressure is there, there’s also the support. She’s got a mom who coaches and trains her and a grandmother who shows up to all her tournaments and games.
“I know there’s somebody always there supporting me,” she said.
While there are many reasons basketball is huge amongst First Nations across the province – sport as wellness, tournaments as community and culture – it all boils down to one thing and Menzies said that it’s because basketball is “just plain fun.”
“It’s become such a powerful statement of pride, resiliency and community and cultural connection,” he said.
“In a world that’s filled with pathology, trauma, anger, distrust and suspicion, basketball … is a place where people can have pure joy.”