A parade of feathered headdresses, grass skirts and body make-up was on show Friday, as more than 2,000 competitors joined the opening ceremony at the first World Indigenous Games in Brazil.
Athletes from The Ingorot tribe in the Philippines, New Zealand’s Maori and indigenous people from Ethiopia, Mongolia and Canada danced and sang in Palmas, a small city in the central state of Tocatins.
From the host country, 24 different indigenous groups are taking part in the games which was previously an all-Brazilian affair.
The participants will compete in 10 sports ranging from running and swimming to wrestling and football, as well as more traditional games like spear throwing and racing with heavy logs. Unlike the Olympics which Brazil will host next year, every competitor will get a medal. The minimum age for entry is 16, but there is no upper age limit and some events will see men compete with women.
Billed as indigenous people’s answer to the Olympics, the nine-day event got off to a rocky start as the opening ceremony’s colourful parade was marred by technical hitches and a noisy protest against the Brazilian government.
Embattled Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff attended the ceremony, and although she did not address the crowd, she was initially greeted by boos and hisses.
When a traffic jam kept busloads of participants from reaching the venue, sparking a long and uncomfortable mid-ceremony delay, several groups of indigenous spectators unfurled protest banners and broke into anti-government chants.
“Dilma’s not good for Brazil and she’s not good for us,” said Jose Cicero da Silva, a farmer from the Wassu Cocal nation in Brazil’s impoverished Alagoas state. “For a supposedly leftist government, she has done nothing to help the indigenous cause.”
“Brazilian politicians are increasingly against indigenous peoples,” said Jaira da Silva of the Tingui-Boto people. “There’s a super conservative congress that’s trying to take away indigenous rights that are enshrined in the very constitution.”
Narube Werreria said she saw the event as a bid to cover up the real situation of Brazil’s beleaguered indigenous populations.
“The government is using the event to cover our eyes and say everything is all right here,” said Werreria, a state government employee from the Karaja tribe, whose lands are near Palmas. “But everything is not all right.”
Still, for many in the audience, the event transcended politics. Many spectators and participants alike were moved to tears by the opening ceremony.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said Reinaldo Quispe, an Aymara Indian in the Bolivian delegation. “I never in my life thought I would meet my brothers from the different tribes around the world.”
Brazil’s indigenous people now make up just 0.5 percent of the country’s 200 million-strong population. They face rampant poverty and discrimination and clash frequently with farmers, ranchers and illegal miners eager to oust them from their ancestral lands.