Theland Kicknosway Is Running for Himself and His Community
Meet the 17-year-old Indigenous athlete, dancer and activist who uses movement to connect with his Native culture and educate others about its history.
"My Back Garden" is a series about everyday athletes finding connection and balance in the natural world.
Theland Kicknosway pounds the ground rhythmically. It is a feeling, an energy, an expression he has known most of his life. He dances around the drums of his tribe to celebrate and honour his Indigenous heritage. He runs along the roads around his community to promote healthy living and highlight important issues facing his people. For him, the movement of his body serves a bigger purpose. "When I'm dancing, similar to when I'm running, I'm feeling that spiritual energy, that connection to the land", he says.
Theland dances in his regalia in the Mer Bleue Bog woods. "When I'm dancing, similar to when I'm running, I'm feeling that spiritual energy, that connection to the land", he says.
Just 17 years old, Theland is a Cree and Potawatomi First Nations Native who lives in Ottawa, Canada, and is a long-time runner, powwow dancer, singer and nationally renowned advocate for Indigenous causes—as well as a senior in high school. His motivation for everything he does is clear. "I'm doing this to hopefully spread light to others", says Theland, who has a sizeable social media following.
According to Theland, since he could walk, he has been running. Initially, it was to let out energy as a young boy. But he began taking it more seriously by the time he turned 8 years old, when he started competing in cross-country and athletics events. And now, like many runners, it's about centring himself.
Theland stands among the trees along the Mer Bleue Bog Trail. "I think what's important in our communities is making sure we're also raising awareness of healthy living", he says.
"Running temporarily stops that stress and anxiety, making sure that you're hitting every step and that you're running with the wind and you're feeling all of the elements around you", he explains. "I actually went for a run this morning, and I could hear the birds singing, and it was really nice to just be able to go out there and see what other kind of beauty there is within the world".
Today, running serves a higher purpose, for him and his Indigenous community. Starting in 2015, Theland has embarked on an annual epic run of more than 80 miles over the course of four to six days, to increase awareness for the plight of MMIWG2S, which stands for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons (a pan-Indigenous term for people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community), as well as raising funds to support their children and loved ones left behind.
The run, he says, is about "using that element, that gift of running, and using that energy for good".
Theland ensures he's regularly able to plant his feet firmly on the ground in nature. "I'm doing this to hopefully spread light to others—and inspire others to recognise that this is our way of life, and this is a good thing", he says.
Theland began to ask questions about the children of MMIWG2S when he was 9 years old. "I had gone to vigils growing up. I was singing songs", he recalls. "But it really came down to, 'Where did these children go, and what happens afterwards?' As a youth, I was looking out for other youths".
His aunt Bridget is the co-founder of a non-profit that helps the loved ones of those who have been murdered—so Theland, inspired by other athletes who have used sport to raise awareness, had an idea. "I said, 'I want to run across Canada'. My mum immediately was like, 'Whoa! Slow down there, Canada is really big'. So, I was like, 'OK, let's cycle across Ontario, let's do this and that'. Then we came down to this idea: I'm going to ask my Auntie Bridget, 'Can I run to your house?'"
Over the years, more friends and family have joined. Now, Theland is planning his first national run for the cause. "It's definitely a big task to handle, but with the support and the love of our people, we'll be able to do it", he says. He's currently researching routes and climate information in the hope of running from Vancouver to Ottawa in the summer of 2021. It's a gruelling trek through the Rocky Mountains, across the vast western prairies and into the wild Canadian Shield, a large region of exposed Precambrian rock.
Theland reflects on his spiritual and cultural journey while walking among the plants in the Mer Bleue Bog.
Keeping fit and maintaining a good diet are a big part of Theland's daily routine. To train for what is essentially a series of consecutive marathons, he alternates between running and cycling days. "Trying to get out there every day and making sure we're eating good food, and just preparing the best we can", he says. He often trains with friends and welcomes anyone to join him for part or all of his annual runs.
He credits his parents with instilling in him a strong sense of identity and culture early on. His mother, Elaine, is Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and Swampy Cree from northern Saskatchewan, and his father, Vince, is Potawatomi from Walpole Island First Nation (also known as Bkejwanong) in southern Ontario.
Like running, Theland's connection with his culture is rooted in respect for the natural world.
Theland plays a song on his hand drum to give thanks to and honour the Rideau River. "When I'm singing a song, or when I'm touching a drum, or whenever I'm just feeling that energy—that spiritual energy—it makes me feel like one. It makes me feel like I am home", he says.
"Running temporarily stops that stress and anxiety, making sure that you're hitting every step and that you're running with the wind ..."
Theland has committed to attending and dancing at powwows, celebrations of culture common in many Indigenous nations. Dancers dressed in colourful regalia perform different dance styles to songs that blend both the traditional and contemporary. From a young age, he has danced at powwows throughout Ontario and Quebec. In fact, he and his parents are regulars on what is known as the "powwow trail", the circuit of weekend cultural events that Indigenous people tour throughout the year.
"For myself, I'm gonna continue to stay strong with my culture", says Theland. "I'm very proud of this knowledge that I hold. I will carry this in a good way and pass it on to my children and my grandchildren in the future".
His father, Vince, braids Theland's hair in the back garden of their Ottawa home. "For me to raise awareness, to wear my long braids, show them proudly and show them to other young men and men in our community … it's important that people have someone they can look to", he says. "Hopefully, I have inspired others to do the same".
Theland already has an audience right now at his fingertips to share his story with and further amplify his voice, his community and the causes he cares about. He educates his 450,000 social media followers about Indigenous culture and history. "I have a video that has almost 5 million views, and it's just me talking about the importance and significance of boys with braids", he says. In many Indigenous cultures, boys and men traditionally wore long hair, and there's a growing movement to reclaim that. Other videos show him putting on his powwow regalia.
"I'm very happy, very grateful to be able to dance in a good way for the people, to be able to show off a little bit of my regalia", Theland says. "And to show people that we are strong and resilient through all of the stuff that's happened to us in the past".
"I say that I've been singing and dancing before I was even born", says Theland, standing proudly in his regalia.
One of his favourite outfits for hoop dancing is made from a shimmering, colourful fabric he bought at a powwow market. An aunt helped him create the garment, which vibrantly complements glowing LED hoops he acquired online. "The hoop dance is from the Hopi people down in Arizona, to my knowledge", explains Theland. "It is a storytelling dance. As you weave [the hoops] together, you're creating different images of nature, of different beings you might see in creation".
Throughout Theland's family home are traditional items like drums and shakers, as well as medicinal plants like sweetgrass and sage. He says that these treasured belongings and the energy within his home keep him centred, which is especially important as he begins his final year of high school.
Outside, the power of running and dancing are just as tangible and powerful to the balance he's able to maintain throughout all of his pursuits. "When I'm singing a song or when I'm touching a drum or whenever I'm just feeling that energy, that spiritual energy, it makes me feel like one", he says. "It makes me feel like I am home".
Words: Waubgeshig Rice
Photography: Karen Joyner
Reported: September 2020