NEWS
07/14/2017 12:41 EDT | Updated 07/15/2017 09:02 EDT

Finding her own voice through the Indigenous Games

When 15-year-old Mary Nahwegahbow steps up to the microphone Sunday night at the opening ceremony to sing the anthems at the North American Indigenous Games, she'll be honouring a language many from her home First Nation no longer speak, mainly because it was lost at residential schools.

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Nahwegahbow has been selected to sing the American anthem as well as O Canada. She'll sing this country's anthem in English, French and will finish in Ojibwe.

"I think I'm just going to be really honoured and overwhelmed with joy to sing the anthems and represent my reserve and my grandma and grandpa who are coming to watch me," she said.

Nahwegahbow's family comes from the White Fish River First Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Toronto. That's where her grandma Judy and grandpa Alex are living today. Many of Alex's 11 siblings were sent to residential schools. He was not, instead he attended a school in North Bay before becoming one of the first people from the First Nation to graduate from university.

Alex grew up speaking Ojibwe at home, recalls Nahwegahbow's mother, Amy. But he never taught his daughter the language.

"I told Mary the other night, the language was stolen from us," Amy said. 

"She said what are you talking about. I told her about my dad growing up speaking Ojibwe first and then when they weren't allowed to speak it, he didn't want to teach us. Nobody spoke it."

But on Sunday night, that language Alex and so many others were so proud to speak and then no longer spoke publicly will reverberate around the Aviva Centre when Mary sings the anthem.

"To have them come and experience it with us is a really happy moment in our lives. We're going to remember this forever," Amy said.

Mary knows how important it will be for her family.

"I hope they're proud of me," she said.

Soccer and pop star in the making

Mary has had three goals keeping her motivated over the last number of years. She wants to be a pop star. She wants to play soccer in the Olympics. And she wants to help as many poor and homeless people as she can.

"Those have been my three goals since I was a little girl. I fell in love with soccer at a very young age. And I've been singing since I was born essentially."

She doesn't shy away from the spotlight, in fact, Mary says she loves the attention of a big crowd when she's performing or when she's on the soccer field.

To combine her love of music and sport and to be able to do both at NAIG is a dream situation for Mary. First she'll sing the anthems to open the Games and then she'll hit the pitch with Team Ontario's under-16 soccer team.

"Soccer is a way to gain confidence and self-esteem," she said. "Playing with an Indigenous team is going to help connect me to culture and other Indigenous girls."

And that's an important thing right now in Mary's life, according to her mother. Amy says she knows that her daughter is struggling with her identity.

"When she was little at school she didn't want to be an Indian. Someone must have said something and she told me, I just want to be a regular girl," Amy said.

"This is a chance for her to feel proud about her culture."

Inspired by her daughter

As a single mother, Amy has always tried to provide her daughter with as many opportunities as possible. Mary is an only child and so the bond between the two is strong.

"I just think she has so much potential and I am floored by her strength," Amy said. "At her age I wasn't like her. I wasn't as strong and talented as her."

The support and guidance provided by her mom is something not lost on Mary.

"She supports me through my music and soccer," she said. "All of my life she has encouraged me to do my best."

And perhaps most fitting of all, it's been Amy over the last number of weeks and months who has been relearning her native tongue to help her daughter prepare to sing the anthem in Ojibwe.

"Back in the day, me and my sisters were never taught a word, unfortunately," Amy said.

"And I think a lot of the culture was not passed down or shared. It's not an easy language to learn but I said let me teach you the ending. Finish with Ojibwe."

Mary is ready to find her voice on the biggest stage during the anthem and knows how powerful that will be.

"It'll be so empowering to see how we all come together to participate in the Games."

Among the thousands who will be watching and listening will be her grandpa and grandma from White Fish River First Nation, singing along with their granddaughter in their home language.