American Indian representations shine brightly at Olympics


The international Olympics, such as the Winter Games now in full swing in Utah, are wonderful opportunities for American Indian and indigenous peoples to come forth in the world arena.

The recent welcoming ceremony, which featured Shoshone, Ute, Paiute and Goshute tribes, along with the Navajo, each offering greetings and goodwill in their own distinct native languages to the world's finest athletes, ? this was a great moment for tribal peoples the world over.

Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Navajo Nation, Shoshone, Ute, Paiute and Goshute nations, Indian country was able to project and sustain a dignified presence at these 2002 Winter Olympic games. The Navajo Pavillion and the many other representations, always too small, always too limited, nevertheless gave ample evidence of continuity and dignity among tribal peoples to millions of viewers around the globe.

It is not easy; it never is. An Olympics is a huge undertaking. Tribal concerns, whether over cultural representation or commercial spaces, will be diverse and very competitive and squeezed by larger players into difficult quarters. Each culture has its perspective, each artist his unique way of presenting, which makes it hard to allot the proper time and space to each individual idea or display. While programmatic improvements could have enhanced the impact of exhibiting contemporary Indian realities, there were enough positive elements to make the program effective.

In 1980, the Mohawks nearly hosted the Winter Games at Lake Placid. Those were more protest-ridden times, but nevertheless, Indians carried the torch. From the great Sac and Fox Jim Thorpe, popularly voted the greatest athlete of all time, to the long, strong run of Oglala Billy Mills (1960), to Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal heroine of the Sidney Summer games in 2000, and to this week's featured skater, Naomi Lang, the presence of indigenous peoples at the Olympic games has grown.

Again, this trend is greatly welcome.

To Naomi Lang, Maheetahan, Karuk member Morning Star, we send this message: We are very proud of you, representing us all. In an America where public image ? its strength and resonance ? greatly impacts our people's potential for influence, there is little better audience than those attuned to the Olympics, nationally and internationally, to give a public presence to Native peoples and the reality of our present-day existence. You, by your effort and diligence and talent, are today representing us. Thank you, we wish you our best, and may the Great Spirit guide and protect you.

The same affirmation is also offered to Blair Burke, Choctaw Nation member from Oklahoma, who is a calf roper for the U.S. rodeo team, and Tom Reeves and Bud Longbrake, saddle bronc riders from the Cheyenne River Sioux. We watched and rooted for you and your teams.

Thanks also to the many Native runners who carried the torch, to the tribal leaders who had the foresight to travel to Greece in the ritual retrieval of the Olympic Torch, to the organizers who put in the long hours ? your efforts certainly achieved excellent goals.

One tribal leader who went to Greece was Clifford Duncan, Northern Ute elder, who was enlivened by the fact that Native peoples were not thought "extinct," but instead, were "recognized as a group of people."

The fact that 30,000 American Indian residents among Utah State's 2.3 million got so much attention might have irked some people, those still clinging to America's darker legacies. But, through the opening ceremonies themselves the inclusion of tribal greetings had seemed completely natural. The Indian presence was a hit.

The welcome to the world by the Native nations in Utah, each in their own language, sent a profound and powerful message and gave proper standing to Native peoples during such a significant international ceremony. Again, this was a source of pride for all. On NBC the particular Native peoples represented were referred to as Indian nations ? another positive sign to share with the world from the reality of our self-governing histories. The program's theme, "This is Indian Country," with various native singers and dancers, brought the point home that America puts its best foot forward when it embraces its first peoples, its first societies, cultures, and governments. American Indians have many friends in Europe, where the opening ceremonies were received very well, and, again, in a world influenced by mass media, important connections and alliances are thus created.

Therefore a deep, heartfelt appreciation is due to the athletes and the Indian nation representatives who toiled and achieved this exceptional presentation of Indian country. Some core organizers worked very hard to make it happen. Congratulations are offered to them and gratitude is expressed for their displaying the resiliency of American Indian peoples, an important message for these troubled times.