Witness the most unique sporting event of the year. It’s the 2015 World Indigenous Games in Brazil

50 tribes, 11 sports, 9 days. The city of Palmas hosts the first World Indigenous Games, an event that preserves it joy even in a country where its participants are second class citizens.

Sandwiched between the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazil is hosting the first ever World Indigenous Games. From the 23rd of October to the 1st of November 2,000 athletes from 50 ethnic groups and 23 countries compete in events ranging from football and tug of war to indigenous disciplines such as xikunahity, a football-style game played on all fours. The Games are held in the city of Palmas, home to 10,000 indigenous people and the capital of Tocantins state in Brazil, which is populated by seven ethnicities.

The event’s performance is high on a number of counts.

Celebrating traditions

Preserving indigenous traditions is a challenge all over the world. Showcasing native cultures through a sporting event celebrates their uniqueness and encourages mutual understanding.

Uniting cultures

24 indigenous groups from Brazil and dozens of others from countries as far flung as Australia, Ethiopia and Mongolia meet to share their customs and knowledge. Lamarr Oksasikewiyin of the Nehiyaw people of Canada is a Games participant. He says the event has shown him how indigenous people all over the world are united by the same concerns.

Sidelining competition

Only some of the disciplines are played competitively, such as archery, canoeing and corrida de tora (bullfighting). The rest are demonstration events where no one wins. Every athlete gets a medal because the Games aren’t about being “champion of the Indians” but about “spiritual celebration” explains Marcos Terena of the Xané people of Brazil, President of the NGO Inter-Tribal Committee. He came up with the idea of the event based on a national version of the indigenous games held since 1999.

Taking the $ out of sport

Compared to the lavish expenditure of the World Cup, put at 15 billion dollars, the Palmas games are a drop in the ocean. The cost is 40 million dollars and attendance is free. Unlike major sporting events these aren’t focused on churning out money and advertising deals.

PALMAS, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 26: Brazilian Pataxo Indians with his bodies painted, hold a protest against the proposed amendment to the Brazilian constitution that would change the rules of demarcation of indigenous lands, during  the World Indigenous Games on October 26, 2015 in Palmas, Brazil.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Protest against Proposed Constitutional Amendment 215 at the World Indigenous Games © Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Yet the World Indigenous Games have also been accused of committing a grave foul: that of hypocrisy.

Crunching the numbers

It is estimated that in pre-colonial times Brazil was home to anywhere between three to eleven million native inhabitants. The Portuguese first arrived in 1500 and within a century 90 per cent of the original population had been wiped out. Now, Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous citizens are half of a hundredth of its 200 million people. Though the land they hold covers a tenth of the vast country they are its poorest inhabitants, given also that they don’t own natural resources such as forests and minerals.

Sizing up the opponent: the ruralista lobby

The interests of Brazil’s huge agribusiness sector as well as those of the timber, mining and energy ones are represented by the “ruralista” bloc, which holds 250 of the 594 seats in Brazil’s Congress. In contrast, only a single indigenous person has ever sat in Congress. In 2014 President Dilma Rousseff chose a leading ruralista, Tocantins Senator Kátia Abreu as Minister of Agriculture, known as the chainsaw queen for supporting projects leading to Amazon deforestation.

Fighting the law

The Senate, one of Congress’ two branches, has approved Proposed Constitutional Amendment 215 (PEC 215), which must now be voted on by the Lower House, the second congressional body. PEC 215 would give Congress, thus its ruralista elements, the power that currently resides with the Minister of Justice to demarcate the boundaries of indigenous territories. This threatens almost 80,000 square kilometres of land with agricultural exploitation.

Shaming the Games

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff attended the opening ceremony of the World Indigenous Games to the sound of boos and hisses. The message was clear: indigenous people do not consider the Brazilian government their friend. Other protests have interrupted the event with participants holding up banners against PEC 215 and calling for the “end of indigenous genocide”.

PALMAS, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 27:  Brazilian Indians talk on the river bank during the first World Indigenous Games on October 25, 2015 in Palmas, Brazil.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
On the river bank near the site of the World Indigenous Games © Buda Mendes/Getty Images

So what’s the score?

Life isn’t easy for indigenous Brazilians. The forests, rivers and savannas that are their homes are threatened by plantations, animal grazing, hydroelectricity and mining, just to mention a few. Their culture risks assimilation into mainstream society and they are poorly represented in politics. What is more, Brazil is an outright dangerous country for them. Yet the World Indigenous Games are an occasion to suspend disbelief and let the joy of sport and uniqueness of indigenous traditions take centre stage. To relish in the colours, shapes and sounds, the inexhaustible vitality.

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