Although indigenous people are the original inhabitants of the Americas, they are minorities throughout practically all of its modern countries. The exact numbers change depending on your data source, but only Bolivia and Guatemala could legitimately claim that their populations consist mostly of indigenous people.
In some countries, the percentage of indigenous people is negligible. Puerto Rico, for example, counts indigenous people as being somewhere between 0 and 0.2 percent of its population. In Brazil, the biggest and most populated country in Latin America, the indigenous population is about 900,000, or a mere 0.4 percent of its total inhabitants.
The result is that indigenous issues in North, Central and South America are, usually, not even an afterthought. That reality allows organizations, governments, settlers, and multinational corporations to regularly threaten the well-being of indigenous populations with few repercussions.
In desertic northern Colombia, for example, mining companies have rerouted rivers, causing famine and starvation for the Wayúu people, as well as the reported death of thousands of their children. In Nicaragua, a proposed canal that would unite the Pacific and Atlantic oceans threatens to displace indigenous people, disrupting their lives and endangering their already frail traditions. In Brazil, indigenous people have been fiercely opposing a constitutional amendment that would shift the power to delimit indigenous lands.
Against that backdrop, the first-ever World Indigenous Games is taking place in Brazil. The Games, which will be staged in Palmas—a small and remote city in the state of Tocantins in the Brazilian Amazon—aims to highlight indigenous cultures and values and bring them into a national and international spotlight, as their slogan shows: “In 2015, we are all indigenous.”
As the first-ever “indigenous Copa América” showed this past July, sporting events can be a good vehicle to achieve this goal. That tournament brought national indigenous soccer teams from around South America together, showcasing players who are rarely given a chance to be part of their nations’ soccer systems, and giving them a chance to speak out on how they experience both their indigenous identity and their nationality.
That Copa América de los Pueblos Originarios (American Cup for Aboriginal People) was staged in Chile, a few days after the country hosted CONMEBOL’s official Copa América. The tournament had government support and funding, as well as the help of many legendary South American soccer players. It didn’t draw the same level of attention as the official tournament, but the indigenous cup proved that sports could be used to bring indigenous people into national conversations. After the team from Paraguay won the final against Colombia, many people in the Chaco—a scarcely populated but heavily indigenous region in Paraguay—decided to wear their national team jerseys and take the streets to wave their national flag in celebration.
The World Indigenous Games in Palmas is not centered around soccer, which is hugely popular within indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Latin America, and thus attracts significant regional media attention. Instead, the Games focuses on a broader spectrum of games, providing a wider global reach, and an opportunity to bring indigenous peoples from all over the globe together. Over 2,000 indigenous athletes are taking part in the Games, including athletes from more than 30 countries around the Americas, as well as delegations from New Zealand, Russia, Mongolia, and Ethiopia, among others.
The athletes are competing in various indigenous sports, such as canoeing, spear throwing, and xikunahati—a sport also known as “head soccer” (though it works more closely to volleyball) practiced by some of the indigenous people in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. The Games also includes an abbreviated version of soccer games.
One of the Games’ organizers, Marcos Terena, an indigenous man from the Terena people of Mato Grosso, noted that this “is not a competition between ethnicities, or a fight for medals.” Instead, the Games are a celebration of indigenous heritage and culture. Most disciplines fall into the category of “integration games,” which offer no podiums, but, rather, rewards the best four participants with the same award.
“To compete goes against the thinking of indigenous people,” says Terena, “but, regardless, we need to establish some essential rules so these Games are not seen as an indigenous folkloric moment.”
But the Games aren’t just an opportunity for indigenous people; they are also an opportunity for the host government. The Games are organized by the Comitê Intertribal, or Inter Tribal Council, a Brazilian indigenous NGO that has organized National Indigenous Games almost every year since 1996, with help from the Brazilian Ministry of Sports. The World Games offer a chance for the government to make a statement about how it views and values indigenous communities.
Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, led the opening ceremony in Palmas, but was welcomed by protesters, both indigenous and not (some, admittedly, protesting proposed reforms and not her). The protests are something she should be used to by now, considering the Games are happening only one year after Brazil staged a FIFA World Cup, and one year before Rio de Janeiro will host the Olympic Games—two events that indigenous groups have opposed and criticized.
The Brazilian government could use the success of the World Indigenous Games to show that the country is up to the challenge of hosting mega-events, and that they are taking the side of indigenous people by helping them in this celebration of their traditions.
But some aren’t so convinced by the celebration narrative. Some groups find the entire exercise offensive and have decided to boycott the Games. Certain tribes feel they have nothing to be joyous about, especially in Brazil, where some indigenous peoples are being exterminated by repressive laws and violence due to land disputes.
Some members of the Guarani-Kaiowá people from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, withdrew from the competition with a powerful open letter which read in part: “We are facing a true genocide, marked by paramilitary attacks, murders, beatings, rapes and the persecution of our leaders, [but] the Brazilian government makes a mockery of all that, as it tries to create folklore to distort reality and disguise the real situation of the ordinary people.”
Indeed, the Guarani-Kaiowá have lost many of their own in the past few months as they have tried to reclaim land now legally belonging to farmers. Indigenous communities argue that they are not only being assassinated and kept away from their ancestral lands, but that the state has abandoned them. Since forced evictions began in the 1950s, suicide rates among the Gaurani-Kaiowá have soared, and are currently around 34 times higher than the national average. A lack of proper access to mental or health care doesn’t help matters. Their infant mortality rate is also about double the national average.
The Krahô and Apinajé people, both from the state of Tocantins, also decided to boycott the games. In another open letter, they criticized the organization’s disrespect, as they believe the organizers built vulnerable infrastructures and are using the image of indigenous people inappropriately, “hiding the true reality and the true suffering of the indigenous people of Brazil.”
Terena doesn’t see an issue with the push-back. “They have every right to participate or not,” he said. “We don’t want to create a doctrine from our thought. Differences in opinion are part of the indigenous movement. No group represents another one.”
Hector Franco, another of the Games organizers, also added: “The objective is to have a party, a celebration, but also a reflection. Indigenous political issues will also be discussed.”
Notably, all of this is happening as indigenous people throughout Brazil are opposing PEC-215, a proposed constitutional amendment that will task Congress, instead of the executive branch of government, to demarcate indigenous land. As agro-industry has been the developing force behind Brazil’s economy, powered by its many representatives and lobbyists in Congress (while indigenous people have none), many reasonably fear that amendment is just another way to strip aboriginal people of even more of their land.
Still, between the celebration and objections, the party will go on until November 1st, hopefully highlighting not only the traditions and fraternity of indigenous peoples, but also the problems they face in Brazil and around the world. As Terena says, “the Indigenous World Games must have a political side. We can’t have an encounter of our peoples of this magnitude without touching on this point.”