Canada has been chosen as the site of the next World Indigenous Peoples' Games, slated for 2017, set to feature ferocious tug-of-war competitions, plus sports ranging from a Mexican version of hockey in which the puck is on fire to Brazil's jikunahati, like soccer except players whack the small ball only with their heads.
Canada was selected in a consensus decision by a council of international indigenous leaders at the first-ever iteration of the games in Palmas, in central Brazil, last week. The precise location and date will be determined after spiritual and political consultations, organizers say.
More than 2,000 athletes and cultural delegates, drawn from two dozen countries and hundreds of different first nations, participated in the first world games. The event was chaotic, disorganized and nevertheless full of remarkable cross-cultural connections and moments of sporting triumph.
Canada sent a 53-member delegation that included a women's soccer team that won gold in a nail-biting final match against Brazil's Xerente nation, and long-distance runners who won gold and silver medals as well. Canada's cultural delegation, headed by traditional dancers and drummers from Treaty 6 Cree Nations in Saskatchewan, were scene-stealers, drawing huge crowds to their performances.
But Rick Brant, president of the North American Indigenous Games Council, said it is unrealistic to think the games could be staged in Canada in 2017, both because of what will be needed to mount the event and because the calendar is already crowded. Toronto will host huge North American indigenous games that summer, while Winnipeg (one site discussed for the world games) is already booked to host the Canada Summer Games.
"Beyond the fact that those two events are being delivered, you think of all the very complex elements that go into planning and staging an event like this, and two years isn't sufficient time to do the type of groundwork," he said in a telephone interview from Duncan, B.C., on Tuesday.
The council was not involved in sending the delegation to Brazil, but Mr. Brant said they are "eager to hear about" Brazil and see how they can support bringing the games to Canada.
The World Indigenous Peoples' Games were first proposed at a global conference of aboriginal leaders in 1977, by Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Nation in Alberta. It took until this year to stage world games, with participants from countries including Ethiopia, Mongolia, Finland, Chile and New Zealand, and a huge turn-out from 23 of the 305 different indigenous communities in Brazil, many of them on a first-ever trip outside their home territory.
Chief Littlechild, who got home to Alberta on Monday, is now launching a process of consultation – with spiritual leaders; with chiefs across Canada and leaders from the Métis and Inuit, who did not send athletes to Brazil; with the network of indigenous sports councils across Canada; and with the new federal sports minister, "whoever that will be. I expect there will be a line at the new minister's door and I'll be in it," he said with a chuckle.
He anticipates that the councils and communities will be keen to stage the games, given that several First Nations in Canada have years of experience and capacity hosting similar events. Regina, for example, welcomed more than 4,000 participants last summer for the North American Indigenous Games. And for now, he's sticking to the 2017 timeline.
The games may be held on a traditional territory or in a city, or some combination of both. Which provincial or city governments offer partnership will be a key factor, Chief Littlechild said, since the main challenge in staging the games will be financial. Brazil's games cost an estimated $30-million. He will be looking for commitments from indigenous communities themselves, and also from the private sector.
"Some [corporations] have a very bad name in terms of their activity on indigenous territory and this gives them a chance to reconsider how they have dealt with those communities," he said. The Regina games had sponsors including mining and energy companies.
Another key lesson from Brazil is the challenge of communication: English, Spanish and Portuguese were all in use at the games here, plus dozens of indigenous languages, while the Mongolians and Siberians, among others, were largely left without translation.
While the North American indigenous games tend to focus on a roster of sports close to those played at the Olympics, organizers of the first world games decided to focus on traditional sports and games. "We wanted to break away from this idea of an 'Indian championship' – it's not about that," said Marcos Terena, who sits on the Brazilian indigenous sports council. Some of these – such as swimming and archery – are common across many indigenous communities internationally but others, such as tug-of-war, are less widely played. Soccer appears to be the only universal.
"There needs to be a discussion about what is a good blanace," said Chief Littlechild. "We need to maintain that traditional element – if you shift that balance too much to more mainstream sports you're going to lose the traditional part of it. We could add lacrosse, or maybe an Inuit game like high kick."
(Chief Littlechild was not only a delegation head in Brazil but also a participant – he joined the river swimming race in Palmas and brought home gold in his age group. Indeed, at 71, he was the oldest athlete at the games by nearly a decade.)
Mr. Terena said Canada's First Nations people must decide what, besides sport, will be on their games' agenda. "Here in Brazil, we wanted to talk about demarcation of lands, the indigenous voice and climate change," he said. "There, we have to help, for example, the Canadian youth to get its self-esteem back: They have a problem with suicides." But aboriginal groups from Brazil and elsewhere visiting Canada could stand to learn from what he sees as a greater level of autonomy and political influence in North American aboriginal communities. "In Brazil, the Indian is treated as incapable."
Chief Littlechild expressed concern that having the games in Canada could narrow the field of who can participate. "You might lose the richness of diversity of cultures if you move it away from central South America [given the] relative wealth of the communities – you may lose those people who attended the games by sitting on a bus for three days."
Nevertheless the choice of Canada was popular with other delegations. Juan Correa Calfin, director of the Centre for the Human Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile, said he felt Chief Littlechild had demonstrated great understanding of indigenous knowledge and would be certain to organize good games; they will begin fundraising and networking immediately to raise the money to participate in Canada in 2017, he added.
Harko Brown, who led the Maori delegation, called Canada a "great choice" given the experience with organizing these events. And the event could only be valuable for participants, he said by e-mail as he was making his way back to New Zealand.
"The so-called setbacks of the Palmas games turned out in many ways to add value … for example, the kitchen breaking down meant the Brazilian tribes had to come eat at the international accommodation. [It was] a beautiful collision of cultures, sharing songs and dances with each other while waiting for dinner. The bottom line is the sharing of our diversities and commonalities. We could sit down in a big huddle and the games would still be a success."
With a report from Manuela Andreoni