'Our life is not a game,' say World Indigenous Games protesters

Were the first-ever World Indigenous Games a hit or a miss for the globe's native communities?

Ueslei Marcelino/ Reuters
Indigenous people protest Brazil's Constitutional amendment PEC 215 during the World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Brazil this week. The sign reads, "Our life is not a game."

"We are diverse."

According to three native American media makers, that's Number 1 on "7 Things About Native Americans You'll Never Learn From the Mainstream Media."

Advocates today encourage reporters to always specify someone's particular tribe and traditions, chipping away at over-generalizations. 

But even when identified properly, native peoples around the world still have to fight what a Canadian guide to reporting on indigenous communities calls "The WD4 rule": the media's tendency to only cover aboriginal issues when they fit into the stereotypical framework of warrior, drummer, dancer, drunk, or dead. 

Some 2,000 representatives from among of the globe's 5,000+ indigenous communities have spent the past two weeks pushing back against those clichés in spectacular fashion: the inaugural World Indigenous Games, hosted in Palmas, Brazil from October 20-November 1, a celebration of athletes' diversity, resilience, and traditional sports. 

But even if the Games managed to broaden some fans' ideas about indigenous peoples, some asked: at what cost?

Brazil itself is home to hundreds of tribes, two dozen of which traveled to Palmas to participate in events including canoeing, spear throwing, and a "parade of indigenous beauty" which, organizers emphasized, was not a beauty pageant. As was true of all events, they said it's not about the winners, but giving recognition to traditions, skills, and people rarely valued in the media. 

But, as in so many countries, Brazil's indigenous people still suffer disproportionately from poverty and discrimination, a situation many activists fear will be worsened by the passage of PEC 215, a constitutional amendment passed during the Games. 

The amendment passes responsibility for determining indigenous lands from the executive to the legislature, which critics allege is controlled by land-hungry agricultural companies. 

Protestors against PEC 215 managed to interrupt the Games at several moments, notably when President Dilma Rousseff appeared at the opening ceremony. Two tribes from Palmas' own state, the Krahô and Apinajé, boycotted the Games entirely out of concern that the feel-good atmosphere would give a misleading impression of native people's welfare. 

Some Guarani-Kaiowá athletes also withdrew, objecting that the Brazilian government "makes a mockery" of indigenous groups' "true genocide, marked by paramilitary attacks, murders, beatings, rapes and the persecution of our leaders." 

In 2014, the Indigenous Missionary Council reported "an alarming increase in murders" of Native Brazilians: 138 homicides, in total. 

The Games were supported by the United Nations Development Program, reflecting the past several decades' movement toward advocating for indigenous peoples on a global platform, recognizing the common experiences of land loss, colonization, and discrimination that connect groups from the Sami in Finland to Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. 

In 2007, the General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, treated as a watershed moment despite its lack of binding agreements. Even so, Canada, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand voted against it, the only member states to do so. 

The Games are "a pow wow in the true sense of the word — a gathering of nations," Felicia Chischilly, of Navajo Nation, told the Associated Press. 

But time will tell if future "Native Olympics'"have the power to change viewers' idea of indigenous people.

The Games reveal "tensions between celebration and objectification," Pablo Medina Uribe wrote in a piece for Fusion, a dilemma evident in some descriptions of the athletes: "Brazil’s buffed-out, face-painted indigenous women reportedly strike fear in rivals’ hearts," one report noted. Another described participants as "Supersized Maori from New Zealand, diminutive Aeta from the Philippines and native peoples of all shapes and sizes in between." 

As the Games draw to a close today, the competition has proven to be just as much about politics and PR as strength or speed. "Our life is not a game," one protester's sign reminded photographers — perhaps before he dashed off to the next event. 

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