Charlton Weasel Head made history before scoring his first points as a Brandon University Bobcat.
The second he stepped on the BU hardcourt for a Great Plains Athletic Conference game in 1999, he became the first Indigenous athlete to wear Bobcat blue and gold since the 1970s. According to then head coach Jerry Hemmings, he was the only Indigenous player in all of U Sports hoops at the time.
His path to Brandon started on the Blood 148 First Nations reserve in Alberta. It featured two years in a residential school, an extra year at Kainai High School and no shortage of uncertainty.
The standout point guard only learned of BU’s rich hoops history upon arriving in the Wheat City, the four national titles and long list of all-Canadians, and the significance wasn’t lost on him.
"Wow, someone like me is on this stage, getting the opportunity to do this?" he recalls. "That was my calling from my community … If you can get an education and go do something well, that gave you the opportunity to be a (Kainai) Warrior in our way of life."
Weasel Head started both seasons he spent in Brandon, helping the Bobcats to back-to-back national finals. He was a GPAC second-team all-star and national tournament all-star in 2001. He completed his undergraduate degree in Brandon and is an assistant principal at his alma mater today, and just about every accolade and achievement was unlikely given how his life started.
Weasel Head’s parents separated when he was a toddler and he was placed in St. Mary’s Residential School in Grade 1 as his mother, Gloria, was battling alcoholism. Living with her wasn’t a great option and staying at the school wasn’t much better.
"If it was physical, mental, emotional, sexual abuse, one of those probably happened to many of our community members," Weasel Head said of the school, which was run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in 1969.
"My mom was dealing with alcoholism and I don’t want to say she couldn’t take care of us but it was probably a little safer for me to go to residential school."
Born in 1977, Weasel Head spent two years at the school and said he didn’t experience physical abuse from those in charge, but realizes the emotional impact of losing touch with one’s family and culture. He wasn’t allowed to speak his native tongue, Blackfoot, and was separated from his brother and cousins due to age gaps.
"Deep down I probably was enjoying it, but at the same time it’s the intergenerational," he said. "It probably affected me mentally, emotionally because I didn’t have that connection with my family … I met some friends there but it was anxious, probably depressing because you want to see your parents."
Weasel Head moved to Cardston, the south limit of the reserve, for Grade 3. He then spent the following year in Edmonton with his mom, who got into school for social work. He was back on the reserve from Grade 5 through 12.
He got into a variety of sports in leagues within the reserve, while his brother Lionel was getting into high school sports with the Warriors. Weasel Head signed up to be the football equipment manager, baseball bat boy and basketball water boy — whatever he could do to be around Lionel.
"Being around all these older guys and my brother watching them gave me inspiration … and motivation to learn these sports and excel at them," Weasel Head said.
He certainly did that, especially on the basketball court. The Warriors earned a provincial 2A silver medal in his Grade 11 year, then cracked Team Alberta in the summer. That was a massive eye-opener as the team travelled to British Columbia, then Washington state and Oregon during a three-week trip.
"Being able to play with non-Native players, that experience gave me the opportunity to realize ‘I can compete with anybody,’" said the five-foot-11 guard.
Kainai played 4A the following year and didn’t make it out of its zone championship, but Weasel Head was able to return for a second senior year to finish up a few courses and play, guiding the Warriors to a provincial 3A bronze. By then, half a dozen Alberta colleges were recruiting him.
The concept of top Kainai athletes making college teams wasn’t foreign, but Weasel Head said few were able to handle the student-athlete life away from home.
"There were good athletes that maybe they went to go play for a year away from home and that was it … it made it difficult for them to be a student-athlete because they had to deal with these issues and intergenerational effects," he said. "Not that I want to make that as an excuse but that is a reality.
"… The stories I’m hearing from alumni already, just amazing athletes … knowing that if that didn’t take place, a lot of our athletes were back at home and everything, a lot of our athletes would have finished college or university, played three or four years and done something academically, but they had to fight these other demons."
Weasel Head found balance by staying relatively close to home at Lethbridge College. He was an Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference all-star all three seasons, earning an all-Canadian nod his second year.
Then in May of 1999, he was ready to make the leap to the university game. He was interested in Alberta universities like Lethbridge and Calgary, but Southern Alberta Institute of Technology coach Peter Sambu was heading to Brandon to be an assistant and convinced Weasel Head to make a visit along with future Bobcat Junior Leslie.
When the local schools weren’t expressing much interest, Weasel Head decided to give it a shot.
After working with the team, Hemmings said he’d have a good chance if he could arrive at camp in shape in September.
"After my three years experience knowing if I want to get a degree and support my family, I need to go to university and need to get an education," Weasel Head said. "That motivated me May, June, July, August to get myself in shape and ready for when I got there.
"… Right when I got there I started and was able to fit in because some of the guys that were there saw my abilities.
"I started connecting with Earnest Bell, Greg Walker, Josh Masters … knowing I got respect for what I could do, that gave me some comfort."
The transition wasn’t easy as Weasel Head already had a one-year-old son and a daughter due in October, but he got to move with his mom as she enrolled in BU’s First Nations counselling program.
On the court, the Bobcats battled to an 11-9 conference record and swept Manitoba in the league final, earning their 14th consecutive trip to nationals in Halifax. They had the eighth seed and drew top-ranked Alberta in the quarterfinals.
"Earnest Bell was our all-Canadian and knowing we had somebody who could compete with all these guys there (was big)," Weasel Head said.
"… It seemed like something changed in us knowing we could compete against Alberta, University of Victoria, UBC, Calgary."
Sure enough, Brandon got the job done with a dominant 73-57 victory, setting the stage for one of the great shots in U Sports history.
It came the following day, May 18, 2000. BU and Western were locked up at 58-58 with 1.8 seconds left. The Mustangs heaved a pass from their own baseline. Masters picked it off, took a dribble and launched a half-court dagger to send the Bobcats to the final.
"It was crazy, unbelievable. Now we’re in the national championship final being a team that was almost .500 in conference play, hitting a half court shot almost like all these things were destined to happen," Weasel Head said.
"He makes it and we were just ecstatic all over the place, knowing we beat a pretty darn good team, and just getting ourselves motivated and moving into what we needed to do, getting rest and eating.
"Now we got to face the number two team in St. Francis Xavier. There’s 9,000, 10,000 people in the Metrodome and they’re all cheering for St. FX."
The final came down to the last possession, with the Bobcats missing a few potential title-winning shots in heartbreaking fashion. X-men fans rushed the court before they were able to clear off, leaving them caught in the middle of a celebration they wanted no part of.
"Knowing we had a chance to win on the last shot, it was pretty tough to swallow, knowing we had a couple of chances to overtake the lead with seconds on the clock," Weasel Head said.
"It was heart-wrenching losing the game, being there thinking ‘What could I have changed?’ It wasn’t just at the end we lost the game, it was a turnover or a missed layup or something. We were up eight, nine points with two or three minutes and I think we were more focused on getting stops."
The Bobcats only got better for the 2000-01 season, adding all-Canadian guard Tyrone Smith.
They were high in the national rankings, compiling an 18-4 conference record and going 37-6 overall. The team was aware of what it was capable of, and Weasel Head knew his final season would mean a lot more to him.
"I got to do it for my community, I got to do it for my university and for my teammates and coaches," he said. "Knowing my tribe and my reserve and everyone is watching, they want to see what it’s like and they can see ‘Wow, there’s a first nations athlete doing this, I want to do this.’ Knowing that pressure’s on me, I’m OK with that pressure.
"I was OK with that pressure knowing all these years, the years I played at nationals … going to provincials in high school, playing at that high end the last seven or eight years and now my last year I got to put everything together."
That year, Brandon cruised to the final eight, going nearly two months without a loss. It ousted St. Mary’s in the quarterfinals, then edged Western once again in the semis. Weasel Head posted 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting in his best output of all six nationals games he played as the team earned a rematch with St. FX.
That one went to overtime before everything fell apart.
"We just couldn’t get nothing falling or going in overtime," Weasel Head said.
"Knowing that last minute in overtime that ‘This is it, we don’t have anything, we’re down six or seven,’ ended up losing and the fans come running on the court. We’re off to our bench, back to the locker room. It was emotional, heartbreaking. That’s it. Done."
It was a tough pill to swallow, but it didn’t take long for the Albertan to realize just how rare his experience was. And how much bigger than a game his journey was.
"No one can ever take that experience away from me, a first nations kid from the Blood reserve, getting to that point in Canada basketball, at the time that was the pinnacle of Canadian basketball," he said. "… Look where you got, look where you went. At the time, not any other First Nations athlete could ever say that."
Weasel Head’s next step was to enter to U of L’s education program, after which he returned to Kainai High in the fall of 2003 to start his teaching career. He started with and still runs various athletic programs and coaches varsity basketball teams, and was promoted to assistant principal five years ago.
"I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. Knowing how much of a difference when I came here that those teachers made in my life, I knew I had to be a Phys. Ed. teacher," Weasel Head said.
He continues to be made aware of his own impact on others.
"Even sometimes in the last couple of years … they’re like ‘I remember having your game tape, watching that game on TSN … It’s pretty awesome to have one of our own people doing that,’" he said.
"To know that younger kids watched those games and that motivated them to play high school or be a native athlete in our community wanting to play basketball, knowing ‘I could succeed if I put effort into my playing abilities,’ … it’s overwhelming but at the same time very prideful and has given me the opportunity to know that hopefully I made a difference in someone’s life."
Weasel Head received the Tom Longboat award for aboriginal sporting excellence in 2001, and has since been inducted into the Lethbridge Sports Hall of Fame (2008) and earned a community leader award from Lethbridge College in 2017.
Weasel Head re-married in 2005 and has a son, Talon, with his wife, Stacey. The two both had children prior and have a few grandchildren.
These days, Weasel Head and his community are facing a massive challenge. As mental health issues have become more prominent across the country during COVID-19 lockdowns, that pain has hit reserves like Blood 148 especially hard.
"Seeing it firsthand, what my parents went through and right now with the pandemic and how crazy this is … mentally and emotionally it’s had a huge effect on our health and our wellness. We’ve lost so many students and former students of ours in the last year," Weasel Head said.
"There is a high addiction rate with local drugs that are happening … with fentanyl and drugs around our community. We’re losing a lot of people to overdose."
His school is working hard to find creative programming to keep students engaged mentally and physically. It’s tough without sports, especially knowing just how important they were in his life. But the lessons Weasel Head learned through basketball still apply as he strives to make the world around him a little bit brighter.
"If it weren’t for sport, I don’t know what I would be doing today. Basketball gave me the opportunity to excel on and to the next level. It gave me the opportunity to meet new people, compete against other communities," he said.
"From what I went through and knowing the challenges I faced in high school but coming back and being a professional and educator, it wasn’t just about basketball. It’s about guiding them and giving them the opportunity. Stay in school and get your diploma … this will guide you further."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen