Devin Buffalo is not one to shy away from his heritage.
That has been the case his entire life, spanning his days on Samson Cree Nation, Maskwacis where he was born, to his hometown in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where he grew up. It continued with stops in Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Drumheller, Alberta, during his junior hockey days.
And now in Hanover, he can wear his pride on his mask as one of the goaltenders on the Dartmouth men’s hockey team.
“Napekasowino” is scrolled across the back plate of Buffalo’s most recent mask. A Cree phrase, it roughly translates to “I will be the warrior” and it encapsulates his mindset as both a member of the Big Green and a representative of his community.
Buffalo made his first career start as a sophomore at Yost Arena against perennial national powerhouse Michigan during his sophomore season. As a junior, he stepped up and started 29 games between the pipes, the most by a Dartmouth netminder in seven years.
However, Buffalo has stepped up recently in a different way, giving back to the community and heritage he takes so much pride in.
This summer, the rising senior has been present at three levels of the Indigenous Games. This past Sunday, Buffalo began the third installment, serving as an event coordinator for ball hockey at the Alberta Indigenous Games in Edmonton.
It’s the third time this summer that he’s been present for an event like this, working at the World Indigenous Games on the Treaty 6 Territory in Alberta before also volunteering his time at the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto back in July.
“This has been a great experience for me personally,” Buffalo said. “It’s been great to see the level of competition at these events and all the different culture from around the world here.”
The World Indigenous Games began in 2015 in Brazil, growing from a national event over the last dozen years to the first international competition that summer. With Treaty 6 serving as just the second host, athletes from 29 nations and their native delegations made their way to western Canada.
It’s an event unlike any other, not only focusing on athletics, but also using the opportunity of such a large gathering to offer help and support for the betterment of the individuals participating. Academic conferences and workshops were also offered throughout the 10-day event for both competitors and spectators alike. “International Indigenous Youth Conference - Building Resiliency through Physical & Health Literacy” and “International Indigenous Education - Reconciliation University & Colleges” were just two of the 10 seminars offered.
Buffalo became involved through a friend, helping to organize and run events such as bow and arrow, spear throwing and tug of war.
“You would see these men from all over the world competing in the ornate and traditional clothing of their homes. It was awesome to see,” Buffalo recalled. “At night, we would have round dances around the fire and, despite the language barriers, it felt like we were all connecting. There were a lot of friendships forged on those nights.”
The international competition brought the best of athletic competition to Alberta, but in Toronto at the North American Indigenous Games last month was another venue in which Buffalo saw continued growth among younger competition.
Travelling as a chaperone with Alberta’s Athletic (track & field) Team, Buffalo was able to see firsthand the talent level and ability of the population’s youth.
“In my community, kids don’t get to see the world too often, so this is a great way for them to experience different cultures and meet people of similar backgrounds from all over the world,” Buffalo said of the World Indigenous Games. “This was also true in Toronto as it was the first time for some of those kids leaving their homes, flying on a plane and going to Canada’s biggest city.”
“At the opening ceremonies, the stadium was sold out with almost 13,000 people inside,” he added. “Each province sat together so there were different provincial colors represented everywhere you looked. It was so special to see everyone cheering on everyone else and showing so much respect for all the different aspects of culture on display.”
He’s ‘Buff’ or ‘Buff Tendy’ to his teammates when he’s in Hanover. A polite, soft-spoken young man who is always doing what he needs to do to prepare for the team’s next game or practice and his opportunity to continue to prove himself.
At these events this summer, though, Devin was a role model for First Nations youth. He understands that not often does someone of his background leave home and make a splash in Division I college athletics in the United States. He relishes that opportunity to play for himself and to show those in his hometown and places like it that there is no ceiling to what they can achieve.
“When I was there, I would talk to kids about my experiences leaving home to play junior hockey and then coming to Dartmouth,” he remarked. “I saw a lot of kids who were homesick and I told them about how I worked to push past those same feelings to get to where I wanted to go. We would talk about what it took for me to get from my small community to playing top-level college hockey with an Ivy League program and how they could follow a similar path if they pushed themselves.”
Like a lot of Canada, First Nations also see a lot of weight put on players to go the major junior route. Buffalo hopes his experience playing college hockey can be part of a new wave of players opting for education as well as top-tier hockey.
“There are many indigenous hockey players playing in the major junior league. In western Canada, there is a lot of pressure with the WHL Bantam Draft. Many players think their careers are over if they don't get drafted when they are 15,” he said. “Not only do I want to encourage education. I also want to motivate and show kids their careers are not over when you are 15 and are un-drafted.
“I heard so many reasons why I shouldn't apply, and no reasons why I should. A lot of native students dream of going to an Ivy League school, but shy away because of fear of ridicule for reaching too high,” Buffalo continued. “It's unfortunate, but it happens. I want to change that fear and show them we can do it.
“So to be a role model to not only athletes, but to those students is extremely humbling.”
Buffalo’s leadership and presence at the indigenous games was meant to inspire and provide guidance to others, but there was reciprocity coming back toward the Dartmouth netminder as well.
“I saw so much great talent this summer within our communities,” Buffalo said. “It got me so excited to come back to Hanover and do my part to continue to show that talent too.”
- Pat Salvas