Cultural sharing trumps sports at World Indigenous Games

Published: October 27, 2015 5:41 AM EDT

PALMAS, Brazil (AP) – Supersized Maori from New Zealand, diminutive Aeta from the Philippines and native peoples of all shapes and sizes in between tested their mettle at the first World Indigenous Games, a chaotic, kaleidoscopic celebration of first peoples from around the globe.

Organizers billed the nine-day event as a sort of indigenous Olympics.

But for many of the nearly 2,000 participants from some 20 countries who converged last week on host city Palmas, a remote agricultural outpost in Brazil’s scorched heartland, the sports themselves took a back seat to what they said really matters – cross-cultural sharing and learning.

“This restores your faith in humanity,” said Lamarr Oksasikewiyin, a 46-year-old schoolteacher from the Nehiyaw people of Canada’s Saskatchewan province, as he followed round one of the spear-throwing competition. “An elder once told me that our culture will save us. I think this is what he meant.”

Despite the obvious differences between participants – Brazil’s Tapirape wore only body paint and tiny loincloths while the sole Russian delegate was covered in Siberian furs in defiance of the sweltering tropical heat – the commonalities that unite indigenous people from around the globe are palpable, Oksasikewiyin said. From Ethiopia to Ecuador, first peoples worldwide are still reeling from the lingering effects of colonialism and fighting to preserve their cultures and lands, he said.

“We see we’re all in the same boat,” he shouted over the roar of spectators cheering a particularly impressive spear toss. “Being here, all together, it becomes so clear.”

The event, which kicked off Friday, comes one year after Brazil played host to soccer’s World Cup and ahead of next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The indigenous event’s hypnotic opening ceremony swirled with eye-popping feather headdresses, sumptuous silk robes, buttery suede dresses and revealing loincloths as the 40-odd delegations melted into one chanting, dancing, pulsating mass of humanity.

The far-flung cultural mash-ups multiplied over the following days.

Mongolian archers in velvet mantles traded tips with their feather-crowned brethren, the Xerente people, reputed to be among Brazil’s most-skilled archers. A knot of Tarahumara women from northern Mexico haggled mercilessly over the price of a gourd-and-palm leaf headdress with an equally hard-nosed group of artisan women from the Amazonian state of Para.

The Games are the biggest thing ever to roll into the sleepy town of Palmas during its short 27-year history as the capital of Brazil’s newest state of Tocantins. Non-indigenous locals got in on the action, too, filling the bleachers and swarming the handicraft fair. And everyone snapped endless selfies.

Still, the Games have been hampered by technical glitches and allegations of mismanagement. On opening day, construction workers were still busily working on the installations. The sporting events got off to a late start after a wall in the cafeteria collapsed, slightly injuring several workers and leaving many without breakfast and unable to compete on Saturday.

The debut competitions were pushed back to Sunday, which saw a surprise upset in the blistering tug-of-war event: New Zealand’s fierce Maori warriors lost a battle of the titans against the fridge-sized Bakairi people of central Brazil. The Javae women, also from central Brazil, made short shrift of the Mexican women, in their Crayola-hued circle skirts, and a hefty combined U.S-Philippines team outweighed the forest-dwelling Macuxi people.

Native Brazilians representing around two dozen of the country’s more than 300 tribes make up the lion’s share of participants at the Games – and their problems have taken center stage at the event. Small but boisterous protests against a proposed constitutional amendment that would give a Brazilian Congress largely dominated by the agricultural lobby the right to demarcate indigenous lands erupted at the opening ceremony, where embattled President Dilma Rousseff was booed. The proposal could come up for an initial vote this week.

“It would be a disaster for us,” said protester Merong Tapurama, of the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae people, adding that he saw the Games themselves as a bid to paper over the dire reality of Brazil’s beleaguered indigenous people.

Estimated at between 3 million to 5 million in pre-Columbian times, Brazil’s indigenous population is now under a million people, making up just 0.5 percent of the country’s 200 million inhabitants. They continue to suffer from racism, poor education and health care, and remain locked in sometimes-bloody battles with loggers, miners, cattle-grazers and soy farmers intent on pushing them off ancestral lands.

“It’s great that the world is getting to see our culture, see how rich it is,” said Timbira Pataxo, who travelled from Bahia state to sell knickknacks at the entrance to the Games. “But the world also needs to know about the real existential threats we face.”