On the fields, ice rink and basketball court at Siksika Nation, youth are finding hope.

They often come from homes in crisis, but find release from it all in sport. And it’s more than just a night of ball hockey or working out that draws them in on the First Nation east of Calgary.

“When you go to football, you go to a family,” said Ethan Yellow Old Woman, a 20-year-old who’s part of an admired squad of young mentors called SN7 that runs athletic, academic and cultural programs on Siksika.

“You go home, and you go endure some things. And you go to school, and you can’t let it out. But at football, you get that discipline… You have to work together like a family. You have to be a unit.”

Hand-picked youth leaders

SN7 was borne out of Siksika’s crisis program that looks after members who have suffered trauma in childhood. Staff hand-pick promising young members of the band who excel in sport, powwow dancing or academics to become role models for the next generation.

They hold daily athletic programs, and read with young students in schools.

“Kids want to be like them,” said Ethan’s grandmother Vicki Yellow Old Woman, who helps oversee

Three quarters of young Siksika members who applied for summer jobs on the reserve wanted to work with SN7.

The program gets its name in part from the belief that “everything we touch, our footprints are left for the next seven generations,” Vicki said.

“No matter what we’re doing, we’re setting things up for the next seven generations.”

The name also comes from Nike’s line of footwear, Nike Air Native N7, that’s designed to fit Indigenous feet, which are generally wider and taller than shoes available at most retailers. Nike says it diverts all proceeds from the special line to sport and physical activity programs for youth in Indigenous communities across North America.

‘They need someone to look up to’

On Siksika, the fund provides a small annual grant that pays for hockey gear, basketballs and fitness equipment.

“We’re positive role models for the youth, and they need someone to look up to,” said Halle Doore, an SN7 mentor who runs fitness programs for girls aged 13 to 17.

“It gives me the fulfilling feeling to be able to guide these girls and help them, and at the same time they’re building their confidence. And it’s a good way to deal with stress, and keep them away from all the negativity in the community, like drugs and alcohol.”

Doore and the other SN7 mentors are not allowed to drink or take drugs if they want to stay in the program. Their lives are meant to be a direct reflection of what youth on the reserve can aspire to be.

“That’s the power of sports and family, it can do anything and it can bring you far,” said Ethan, who had a strained childhood with parents who attended residential school.

“It can get you out of the deepest holes and bring you to the highest skyscrapers, maybe even the mountains. But you’ve got to work.... It’s not about your start (in life). It’s about your finish.”

Ethan has brought that message to youth not just on his own reserve, but to other Indigenous communities.

Sharing ‘inspiration and hope’

A year ago, he and fellow youth mentor Rilee ManyBears travelled to Nibinamik First Nation, a small community in northern Ontario that was dealing with a youth suicide crisis. In that summer alone, two youths took their own lives and several others attempted. They were as young as 10 years old.

“Me and Ethan, we would spend the entire day with the youth; it’s either playing tag or soccer or football,” said ManyBears. “Just giving inspiration and hope to the youth out there. And to this day they still ask us when we’re coming out there.”

Ethan and ManyBears spent a week and a half at the northern Ontario reserve. They helped local young people form a youth tribe and council and other programs emerged from there.

“What we never realized until we got out there was how powerful it is when youth go to other youth, and how much they listen and just captivate, and how much they want to talk with you,” Ethan said.

“The biggest thing about it was [helping them find] their voice, and that’s what they needed in Nibinamik. If you can give all the youth their voice, imagine what they can do.”

Back on Siksika, the SN7 summer calendar is packed with programs. Running, athletics, football, ball hockey, even walks to significant landmarks on the reserve — such as Blackfoot Crossing — where Treaty 7 was signed.

“I see the potential here,” said Jody Labelle, who runs the program. “If they get the right direction, the right guidance, the amount of change we can cause on this nation would be profound.”

Reid Southwick - CBC News