Protests at opening of World Indigenous Games

Colourful competitors at the games opening ceremony. Picture: Getty

Colourful competitors at the games opening ceremony. Picture: Getty

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THE first World Indigenous Games got off to a rocky start as the opening ceremony’s colourful parade of native peoples was marred by technical hitches and a noisy protest against the Brazilian government.

Billed as indigenous people’s answer to the Olympics, the nine-day event has drawn around 2,000 native people from dozens of Brazilian tribes and nearly 20 countries to Palmas, a steamy agricultural outpost in central Brazil.

Exotic native costumes were the order of the day in Palmas. Picture: Getty

Exotic native costumes were the order of the day in Palmas. Picture: Getty

The opening ceremony was a rich, theatrical affair, orchestrated by a producer who is helping plan the opening ceremony for next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The event included a parade of people in native dress that ranged from tropical-friendly straw skirts and feathers to Arctic furs.

Embattled Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff attended the ceremony, and although she did not address the crowd, she was initially greeted by boos and hisses.

When a traffic jam kept busloads of participants from reaching the venue, sparking a long and uncomfortable mid-ceremony delay, several groups of indigenous spectators unfurled protest banners and broke into anti-government chants.

“Dilma’s not good for Brazil and she’s not good for us,” said Jose Cicero da Silva, a farmer from the Wassu Cocal nation in Brazil’s impoverished Alagoas state. “For a supposedly leftist government, she has done nothing to help the indigenous cause.”

Rousseff, who has seen her popularity ratings plummet to single digits amid a failing economy and unfurling corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras, has long had frosty relations with Brazil’s indigenous communities.

They regard her as too friendly with big agriculture and slow to designate indigenous territories. A proposal to amend the constitution to put the power to designate indigenous lands in the hands of congress, which is heavily influenced by agricultural interests, has outraged many here.

“Brazilian politicians are increasingly against indigenous peoples,” said Jaira da Silva of the Tingui-Boto people. “There’s a super conservative congress that’s trying to take away indigenous rights that are enshrined in the very constitution.”

Still, for many in the audience, the event transcended politics. Many spectators and participants alike were moved to tears by the ceremony, which featured indigenous people from as far afield as the Philippines, New Zealand and Russia. The latter’s single delegate defied the tropical heat in a bespangled black cat suit with fur accents.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Reinaldo Quispe, an Aymara Indian in the Bolivian delegation. “I never in my life thought I would meet my brothers from the different tribes around the world.”

A human kaleidoscope concluded the ceremony as the nearly 2,000 delegates melted into a throbbing, dancing and chanting mass of multicoloured humanity. Although the ceremony had dragged on for hours, the delegates were slow to disperse.

The World Indigenous Games, which includes such events as canoeing, archery and tug-of-war, runs until 1 November.

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