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It may be two years away, but B.C.'s largest native group is already gearing up for a huge gathering that will see 6,000 young indigenous athletes and 3,000 native artists from across Canada and the United States descend on the Cowichan Valley.

The 4,000-member Cowichan Tribes will play host to the 2008 North American Indigenous Games, which celebrate sports and North America's diverse native cultures, spanning groups from Mississippi's Choctaw to Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq.

"The games are much more than sport," says Rick Brant, the chief executive officer for the games. "The cultural aspect is a huge component."

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And, for the first time, the sports competition -- which is open to indigenous youths aged 13 to 19 -- will be staged on native lands, said Mr. Brant, a 38-year-old Mohawk from Ontario.

Cowichan 2008 will also mark the first time a smaller centre will play host to the games, giving the gathering a "community-based" feel, said Mr. Brant, who has been involved in the international event since the first games were held in Edmonton in 1990.

In addition to 16 sporting contests -- ranging from archery to lacrosse to wrestling and tae kwon do -- a village will be created in Duncan to showcase singers, dancers and artisans, with the Cowichan Tribes' Quw'utsun' Cultural Centre serving as a gathering point.

Mr. Brant, an accomplished runner who competed at the international level and earned the Tom Longboat Award in 1987 as Canada's most outstanding aboriginal athlete, knows first hand how important sports can be in a young person's life.

"The games have really been an agent for social change," he says, adding that the camaraderie and competition of sport brings power and a sense of pride to young natives.

Chilliwack resident Stephanie Omeasoo can vouch for that.

Last month, the 18-year-old swimmer brought home four gold, three silver and two bronze medals from the 2006 Indigenous Games, held in Denver.

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She was one of 417 British Columbia athletes who earned 102 medals at the event, which attracted 7,000 athletes from more than 30 teams.

"It was an awesome experience," said Ms. Omeasoo, whose father is from Alberta's Ermineskin Cree Nation. Ms. Omeasoo, whose mother is white, said that because she had not practised her native traditions, she was "kind of scared" before going to Denver.

But her fears quickly faded. She met accomplished native athletes from across North America, and brought home dozens of commemorative team pins to remember them by.

Ms. Omeasoo swims competitively with the Chilliwack Spartans team. She said some of her teammates teased her about taking part in the Denver games, because of the event's native focus. At first it bothered her.

"Now I don't care. I want to do it again," said Ms. Omeasoo, who will be studying criminology at Simon Fraser University in September.

She said her 12-year-old sister, Jennifer, is already practising her tae kwon do moves, eager to make a mark in 2008.

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The Cowichan Valley -- running from Shawnigan Lake north to Ladysmith -- beat out a bid by Regina for the 2008 games.

Mr. Brant said the area's facilities and geographic setting contributed to the successful bid.

In June, a municipal referendum in Duncan approved a new aquatic and fitness centre; the $16.5-million facility is to be built in the city's downtown in time for the games.

The federal and provincial governments will each contribute $3.5-million toward the games' $10.12-million price tag. The remaining $3.1-million is the responsibility of the Cowichan Tribes.

Mr. Brant expects corporate sponsorship, registrations, and ticket and merchandise sales to cover that amount.

The visiting athletes will be housed in area schools.

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Malaspina University-College's Duncan campus is also getting involved. Next month, it will begin offering a certificate program in aboriginal sports management, helping to train skilled organizers at the games. About 3,000 volunteers will be needed.

The nine-day event is expected to inject more than $20-million into the local economy.

While the athletic competitions, art exhibits and traditional fare will be available to all visitors, Mr. Brant said, some activities however will be open only to native participants.

History will be shared in story-telling circles, for example, and elders will be on hand to offer guidance on issues such as alcohol and drug abuse and racism. There will also be a tribal-journey canoe regatta.

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Games at a glance

What: The North American Indigenous Games were first envisioned in 1967, in Reno, Nev., during a gathering of the National Indian Athletic Association. The goal is to celebrate the athletic and cultural talents of native youth, and help them build a better understanding of their culture through the excitement of sports.

History: Twenty years later, Alberta natives began organizing the games, which have been held in various Canadian and U.S. venues. The first games were staged in 1990 in Edmonton, followed by Prince Albert in 1993; Blaine, Minn., in 1995; Victoria in 1997; Winnipeg in 2002; and Denver in 2006.

Next games: Will be held Aug. 2 to 10, 2008, in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley. Sponsored by the Cowichan Tribes First Nation, it will be the first time the games will be held on native lands. The main hub will be Duncan, the "City of Totems," 60 kilometres north of Victoria.

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