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Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw reps welcome New Zealand rugby team

Nation representatives welcomed players from the Black Ferns on Feb. 27 in an emotional ceremony.

It was a powerful welcome for a powerful team. 

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) representatives welcomed players from the Black Ferns, New Zealand's senior women's rugby club, on Feb. 27.

The team is known for its strong representation of Māori culture.

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh ceremony included a gift exchange, shared meal, singing, drumming and an esém̓ḵwu, which means to cover a person and hold them up.

 It is a very high sign of respect in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh culture.

"It felt really good. Not only to be a part of it but to be a witness," said Coun. Sxwíxwtn Wilson Williams, spokesperson for the Nation.

"We wanted to pay tribute and show them respect; what we say is our wanáxws — showing respect."

The New Zealand team is in Vancouver for the 2023 HSBC Canada Sevens tournament, which is on this weekend, March 3 to 5.

The massive tournament will include 32 teams. 

The New Zealand team is a powerhouse of international rugby, with victory in nearly 90% of their tests.

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh event was held at Capilano Rugby Club's clubhouse in West Vancouver’s Klahanie Park, which is on the Nation's traditional territory. 

About the esém̓ḵwu, or blanket portion of the ceremony, Williams said in addition to holding the players up in admiration, the ceremony was meant to take some of the "heavy" weight off of the team’s shoulders.

"Because they're leaving home, and it's never easy, especially if you're travelling across the world. We wanted to unload some of the heaviness that they carry. So that purity in themselves can come through stronger.”

The esteemed guests also received sockeye salmon caught in the Fraser River this past summer.

One of the songs Nation members sang was the Snowbird Song, which is very sacred, Williams said.

Williams added that slhánay̓ stamsh —  women warriors —  also blessed the players. 

"There were some pretty intimate moments of emotion too from some of the players who were blanketed,” he said. 

In the gift- exchange, Williams said he received a signed jersey that he will "forever cherish." 

As the father of three girls, the strength in representation of the women's team is not lost on Williams.

"They are a model of what rugby could be, ultimately. Definitely, they're at the forefront of spreading awareness not only of rugby, but about the Māori people and the culture," he said, adding that the traditional song the players sang for the Nation was moving. 

The Nation's Brad Baker — whom Wiliams called a "true ambassador for women in sports” — is a former long-time coach for North Vancouver's Carson Graham girls' rugby program. 

He initiated the welcome event for the New Zealand players through his connections to the team. 

He has taken several of Carson Graham Secondary School’s teams to New Zealand over the years and said the Māori welcome ceremony they experienced — called pōwhiri — was very similar to the Nation's. 

"Very similar cultural performances and breaking of bread, food and proper speeches and welcoming people to the land," he said. 

When he was visiting, Baker, whose ancestral name is Tsnomot, was offered fern leaf as an offering of peace by the Māori hosts. 

"If we accept that, it means we are coming in peace. So very, very cool."

He concurred with Williams that the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh event Monday was emotional..

"It just shows the mutual respect we have for each other as Indigenous peoples — the Māori people, and the Squamish people and working together to continue to support kids and sport."

Baker said while humble, the Black Ferns are "the best women's rugby team in the world."

"The humility that they show as excellent athletes, it just shows the younger generation of females, the opportunities that lay in front of them — that the door is open for them to walk through in a good way in the sport of Rugby."


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