Fireworks and a fire ceremony heralded the opening events of the first World Indigenous Games, held in Palmas, Brazil from October 23 to November 1. More than 1,800 indigenous people from 23 countries filled the arena and thousands of visitors filled the stands. The event was even attended by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. With 22 tribal nations from Brazil alone, indigenous people from Siberia, Finland, Ethiopia, Mongolia, New Zealand, and many other countries, joined Natives from North, South, and Central Americas.
Tribal college students from Little Big Horn College, Chief Dull Knife College, Little Priest Tribal College, and Navajo Technical University made up the United States team, which was joined by athletes from Canada and New Zealand.
Navajo Technical University student Dwight Carlston, Navajo, recalled the opening ceremonies: “It began with all the tribes lined up outside the arena. The announcer spoke Portuguese and the crowd was loud.” One by one, as each tribal nation entered the arena, “They were singing their songs and doing their dances, things I’d never seen before. It kind of made me excited and nervous. They had this huge light show and a spotlight, and the crowds were cheering. There were so many people. I have never been through anything like that before.”
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
Indians from various ethnic groups and countries dance during the opening ceremony of the World Indigenous Games, in Palmas, Brazil, Friday, October 23, 2015. Billed as the indigenous Olympics, the games attracted athletes from dozens of Brazilian ethnicities, as well as from such nations as Ethiopia and New Zealand.
“It was fantastic! You had to be there to feel the electricity,” said Dr. David Yarlott, President of Little Big Horn College and a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s athletic commission. Planning for the World Indigenous Games began two years ago with Brazilian Marcos Terena, who organized the games.
Tribal college students and staff applied and were selected through AIHEC. The original goal to send 50 U.S. representatives fell short due to cost and the lack of available passports and visas, but for the 11 who went, it was a life changing experience.
The sports events were indigenous based: archery; spear throwing (or javelin); a 100 meter race; a barefoot race, run on sand; an 8,400 Meter Cross Country race; swimming (in the river); canoeing; and a tug of war between nations.
Several tribes gave demonstrations of their own sports, including a blow gun competition, a men’s 200-pound log carry, and the women’s 135-pound log carry. “There was head ball, where they’d dive at the ball and hit it with their heads to advance it, and the Mexicans had a form of hockey with a burning ball. The only Western sport was soccer,” Yarlott said.
A $10,000 grant from the American Indian College Fund partially funded the trip. “We were so honored to be able to support tribal college students and staff attending the World Indigenous Games. Our students are engaged with their communities in the restoration of traditional knowledge and the World Games inspired them to continue that engagement. It was good for our students and staff to see that we have many indigenous relatives that join us,” College Fund president Cheryl Crazy Bull said.
Ken Deputee and Aldean Good Luck, both Crow, attended as athletes and coaches through Little Big Horn College. Both visited with the Baikiri Nation in a village constructed for the games. “They wanted to know about us: Where are you from? How big is your tribe? Do you have your language, your culture, your traditions? The time flew by. They were very welcoming and respectful and there were a lot of gifts exchanged,” Deputee said.
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
Brazilian Canela men take part in a race carrying logs during the first day of competitions of the World Indigenous Games, in Palmas, Brazil, Saturday, October 24, 2015.
Deputee was told the Brazilian nations were unaware there were so many indigenous people in the world. “Brazil has almost 240 indigenous nations. It was cool to see how excited they were about the number of indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada. We share similar cultures and relationships. They liked the eagle feathers and they were coming up to us and touching our beadwork.”
Culture shock hit Good Luck the first day she arrived. “The weather was so hot, and the airport was small and seeing all the trees!” During the trip she was able to see waterfalls and walk on forest trails.
The opening ceremonies gave Good Luck a sense of belonging. “This was history in the making,” she said. Good Luck participated in the Tug of War. “We won the first round. The excitement and the adrenaline, just to be part of that it was awesome,” she said.
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
Participants from the United States perform during the opening ceremony of the World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Brazil, Friday, October 23, 2015.
Former Little Big Horn student Elvis Old Bull Jr. placed fourth in the javelin competition.
From the food to the people, Felicia Chischilly, 29, information technology student at Navajo Technical University, said the experience was “really different and really great.” She compared the games to the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, New Mexico, with different dress and language. “On the reservation, I am used to hearing Navajo. Communicating with people at the games was like going back to the old days and having to use sign language,” she said.
Besides the unexpectedly humid 103-degree weather, the students were faced with another challenge. “We stayed in a school that had been turned into a dorm with little wooden beds and thin mattresses. But the Americans were taller and some broke the beds when they sat on them,” Chischilly giggled.
Each morning, the Amazon nations sang for their breakfast, a daily highlight for Chischilly. “People are beautiful in different ways, despite where they come from. You can’t judge them by how they eat or live, wherever you go or whoever you meet,” she said. “Going into someone’s home and respecting who they are, it really opened my eyes to that. It made me think about the kind of person I really am, inside and out.”
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
A participant from the United States takes part in the bow and arrow competition at the World Indigenous Games, in Palmas, Brazil, Monday, October 26, 2015.
The students were told not to drink the water or eat food offered to them, but Chischilly felt that to deny them would have been disrespectful. “So me and a couple of my friends ate the food and drank the water, and we were really thankful for the offer. They taught me a lot about living off the land. Natives in the U.S. live so much more in the modern world. We don’t realize how good we have it compared to the Natives in Brazil. It made me appreciate what I have,” Chischilly said.
The games will be held again in two years in Canada. “It was amazing,” Yarlott said. “The hospitality, the warmness, the welcome—there were some language barriers, but the smiles more than made up for all the differences.” Discussions about student exchange programs with Brazil have begun.
When Chischilly returned to her reservation, a handful of little girls told her how her travel and participation in the games inspired them. Chischilly was moved by that and said, “I didn't realize how much that trip would influence the younger generation. Now I have to watch what I do and where I go. It made me cry, and it really inspired me.”