It’s the middle of the third quarter and tensions are running high in Strathcona.
For the players on All My Relations—a basketball team made up exclusively of indigenous women—the dream of winning the Strathcona Women’s Basketball League’s spring championship seems to be vanishing before their eyes.
With 15 minutes left in the final game, they are trailing behind Team604 by 11 points, and now depend on a heroic surge to take the win.
As the clock ticks down, the feat seems impossible—but then again, these women are used to seemingly impossible comebacks.
Joleen Mitton’s comeback started right around the time she joined the team.
Before All My Relations, she was a “rambunctious” teenager, who grew up in the Downtown Eastside and spent the first few years of her life living with her teenage mother in a group home.
She constantly got into trouble at school, and was battling with some serious identity issues.
“I didn’t know who I was,” said Mitton, 31, who now proudly identifies as Plains Cree.
Growing up, Mitton knew she was native, but never learned about her culture. In fact, all those teachings had been lost to her family two generations earlier, when her grandmother was sent to residential school.
“It sucks when you don’t know who you are or where you come from,” she said. “I was missing a huge piece of who I was.”
After finishing high school Mitton decided to get as far away from the Downtown Eastside as possible. She started a career as a model, and travelled around Asia for work.
But at the age of 19, during a trip home to Vancouver, a friend told her about an all-native basketball team that practiced at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
“They heard I was native and they asked me to play,” said Mitton, who finally joined the team two years later. “It was an eye-opener and a welcoming to my culture.”
The experience was transformative.
“Since I started playing basketball in the native community, I started working in the native community too, and that’s when stuff just started making more sense, and I was a lot happier,” said Mitton, who is now the team captain.
A decade after joining the team, she is responsible of organizing team trips to all-native tournaments throughout B.C., and pushing her players to excellence on the court.
Outside of basketball she organizes fashion events that showcase indigenous cultures, and makes a living as a community support worker, teaching cultural practices to indigenous children in foster care.
All of this has been possible thanks to basketball, and the support and mentorship she has gotten from her teammates.
“It’s cool that because we all play basketball, we can all relate to that, we can talk about where we come from and who we are,” she said.
Mitton's story isn't that different from that of 27-year-old Lashawn Wahpooseyan, who also plays for All My Relations.
Her personal comeback began over three years ago, when she moved to Vancouver from Regina, Sask., to adopt a sober lifestyle.
Wahpooseyan joined the team a few months after the move, and soon found out that All My Relations was more than just a basketball team.
“It gives me a sense of belonging, they are like my family, they’re my sisters,” said Wahpooseyan, who is also Cree.
Although she grew up with some connection to Cree culture, living in Regina meant that she was not always allowed to celebrate her heritage.
“In Regina there’s a small town feel, and there’s a lot of racism there,” she said. “You’re brought up to be ashamed of who you are.”
But moving to Vancouver changed that.
Pushed by a feeling of belonging, Wahpooseyan is now proud of who she is. She continues living a sober lifestyle, and gives back to the community by working with children in foster care.
“It’s a big thing for somebody to be a part of a close-knitted aboriginal community,” she said, adding that her main goal is to be a positive role model for indigenous women and girls.
Positive role models like Mitton and Wahpooseyan are what drew 23-year-old Camellia Brown of the Nisga’a First Nation to the team.
Brown has been a sports enthusiast from an early age, and started playing basketball while living in foster care in Terrace, B.C.
Although she's played on many teams, she's surprised by the lessons she's learned from her teammates in All My Relations.
“They’re role models and they don’t really know it,” said Brown, who now works with a special needs adult in Burnaby. “That's what I like about being on the team. It’s so encouraging and makes me think of how I can contribute to my nation and my community, and to finding my culture."
Back in the gym of the Strathcona Community Centre, the clock is winding down.
The heroic comeback, which seemed impossible only a few minutes ago, is in full swing. In the past 13 minutes, All My Relations has surged passed its opposition, and with a minute left on the clock, is now up by seven.
The players on the bench are cheering for their teammates, who in turn are defending what could be the last ball of the game with astonishing grit.
Victory is less than a minute away, and the team is working together for a common goal.
Regardless of the final result, the comeback is complete.