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Indians in the Olympics Ceremony ? Postcard from the Past

Hundreds of Indian people, resplendent and dignified, took center stage in the opening ceremonies for the XIX Winter Olympic Games.

Tribal representatives welcomed Olympians in the languages of the five Native nations in Utah ? Ute, Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone and Dine-Navajo ? and received gift bundles in return.

Then they danced back into history, making way for miners, cowboys and settlers of all other races to do-se-do together (as if that ever happened in that place at that time). Only the Indians were missing from the hoedown in Salt Lake City.

Once again, Indian people were the picture postcard from America's distant heritage, planted deep in the cultural background and firmly rooted in the past tense. Even the buffalo entered the Olympic stage later ? that is, in more modern times ? than the Indians did.

It would have been so easy to portray Native peoples in the present day. For starters, half of the Native dancing and most of the pioneer hootenanny could and should have been cut. That alone would have made for a better show.

The Native dignitaries could and should have welcomed the U.S. and Olympic dignitaries. That would have made an important contextual point about Native lands and sovereignties, and about past and current relations of peace and friendship with the United States.

The Olympic torch could have been handed to the winners of past Winter Games by two Native American Olympians: Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Cheyenne), a silver medalist in judo, and Billy Mills (Oglala Sioux), who won a gold medal in the 10,000 meter race.

This would have placed Native people in the community of Olympians, which is the real point of the whole deal.

Additional perceptual information could have been transmitted quickly, merely by saying, "Campbell is a Cheyenne chief who lives on a Ute reservation in Colorado, the state he represents in the U.S. Senate." All of that would be news to most viewers, at home and abroad.

But these are just symbols, you say? Well, yeah. Mega-bucks worth of symbols. Symbology that reaches millions of people around the world and leaves a lasting impression in place of reality.

So, why were Indians presented only as a preface to America's history? I hope it was the handiwork of a show-biz reincarnation of the historic whiteman and not the fault of a Native staffer who was hired to handle the Indians.

It is likely that the Native participants did not want to call attention to any problems. It also is likely that some failed to perceive a problem at all and that a few might have branded any complaining Indians as troublemakers.

Indian people in these settings are too polite, too grateful and too generous. We are surprised and happy to be invited anywhere, especially to a great event, and the opening of the Olympics is as big as events get. We want to respect our hosts and, in our role as welcomers, even in performance, we cannot be rude to our guests.

One non-Indian friend e-mailed a message that the prominent role of Indians in the Olympics opening was "uplifting and inspiring." Another wrote that it was "beautiful seeing all the (Indians) perform, while ironically surrounded by their invaders."

Other friends were bothered by the Native segment of the ceremony. One called it a "trivialization of the Native element."

"It's more tap-dancing for the whiteman," said another.

"This idea of visibility at any cost lent an unfortunate cartoon-like quality to it all," said artist Judith Lowry (Mountain Maidu & Hamowi Pit River). She speculated that the Indian participants "were too grateful for the exposure to protest."

A leading Native American painter, Lowry said, "Seeing those beautiful, dignified people was touching to me. Then came the pioneer crap ? they left out the massacre and genocide part, notice? The Indians politely exited the stage; not exactly a repeat of history."

For Lowry, the "glorification of the pioneer expansion on the heels of the dances and blessings of the survivors of the five Utah tribes, was a poignant reminder to me that too many of us are comfortable forgetting the real lessons of history, so we are bound to repeat the mistakes and be victimized by them."

Lowry was struck by the "solemn procession with the tattered flag" and the "assurance that somehow, by bravely going forward with the games, we were reclaiming our world from terrorism. We would like to live with the illusion that we are safe, but for those of Native heritage, this is impossible. The reminders stay with us from generation to generation."

Another top Native artist, Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), said, "It gave me a good feeling to know that millions of people were seeing so many Indian people and hearing the sound of some of our living languages."

A beadworker and performance artist, Amerman's alter ego, "Buffalo Man," appears on the cover of the recently published coffee-table book, Indian Country. He said he particularly enjoyed the interplay between the Native speakers and the audience.

"The blessings were too uniform for the Indians," Amerman joked. "So one added a little whoop at the end and the crowd liked it, so another threw his hand up when he finished and the crowd went crazy. I can see where this is leading ? to a 'Bless-Off' contest craze that anthropologists will record as a 21st Century spiritual revival."