Located on BC’s gorgeous North Coast, just off the Alaskan panhandle, the port city of Prince Rupert has a robust Indigenous population, so it’s not too surprising that this remote place is home to what is heralded as one of Canada’s largest Indigenous cultural events.
What may be surprising to visitors, however, is that this event isn’t what might be considered a traditional Indigenous gathering or ceremony — it’s a weeklong basketball tournament that attracts highly skilled players from all over the west coast and beyond.
The All Native Basketball Tournament (ANBT), which takes place from February 9 through 15 in 2020, is in its 61st year. Back in 1959, the founders of the tournament scheduled it for winter since it was the most open time of the year for the Indigenous workers employed by the region’s fisheries.
For the entirety of that week, Prince Rupert welcomes approximately 10,000 visitors, including players, their families and spectators. In addition to brackets for men, women, “masters” (a.k.a. older players) and intermediate players under 21, the tournament includes music and dancing, food vendors, and artisans selling traditional crafts, all of which lend a festival-like atmosphere. Every year a different coastal community hosts the very popular opening ceremonies, sharing its own particular traditions with participants.
“It’s huge,” says Leah Kolesar, Chief Steward of BC Ferries’ Northern Expedition and a resident of Prince Rupert. “It’s such a big community event and you can feel really feel the electricity in the air.”
Outsiders may not realize how important basketball is to modern Indigenous culture, particularly in the BC coast’s more isolated island communities. Without a lot to do over the long winter months, many Indigenous youth develop a passion for basketball, a sport that can be played indoors, away from the cold. As a result, the competition at ANBT gets fairly intense, though it’s all in the name of fun and community-building.
Adrian Robinson works with Kolesar aboard the Northern Expedition and is also an ANBT player. His team, the Gitxaala Warriors (also known as Kitkatla) has won the tournament for the last two years in a row and is looking for a three-peat in 2020. He’s been playing ball since he was 13 and describes the sport as “a way of life in Prince Rupert.”
“And we’ve got the best fans at the tournament,” he says. “I don’t want to brag, but our fans are nuts. They all come out to Prince Rupert and have a real presence.”
Given Prince Rupert’s island location, BC Ferries needs to make adjustments to get all of the tournament-goers into town. Since the vast majority of visitors need to take the ferry, additional midweek sailings are added to the ferry schedule. The crew offers onboard activities and makes cookies for the teams, and Indigenous drummers and dancers will often practice on board, giving a taste of that festival feel before the ferry even docks in Prince Rupert.
“None of the other BC Ferries experience this kind of traffic in February,” Kolesar says. “The schedule changes to revolve around the tournament. We do things on board to let passengers know that the tournament isn’t just a big deal to them, but that it’s also important to us.”
Robinson in particular is looking forward to the tournament. His own grandfather is a former player and a member of the ANBT Hall of Fame, so the tournament has always been a big part of his life. Reliving the moments of his team’s 2018 overtime win against Hydaburg — Gitxaala’s first ANTB victory in over 50 years — it’s clear that to Robinson, his teammates, and his community, ATNB is about much more than basketball.
“For the community of Gitxaala, that win was so big,” he says. “They raised $60,000 for us to all go back home so we could raise the banner in the local gym. I’m so proud to play for the place where I come from and win. It’s an amazing feeling.”
For more information on the All Native Basketball Tournament, visit anbt.ca.