Skip to main content
Lamarr Oksasikewiyin from Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan poses for pictures with indigenous Brazilians after performing Cree traditional dances for a crowd in Palmas, Brazil, at the first World Indigenous Peoples Games on Oct. 28, 2015.

Lamarr Oksasikewiyin of the Nehiyaw nation in Saskatchewan poses for pictures with indigenous Brazilians after performing Cree traditional dances for a crowd in Palmas, Brazil, at the first World Indigenous Peoples Games on Oct. 28, 2015.


From the plains of Saskatchewan to the beaches of New Zealand, native cultures from around the world gathered for the first-ever World Indigenous Peoples Games in Brazil. Though balancing their varied athletic traditions was an Olympic sport unto itself for the organizers, the competing cultures have found common ground on the issues they face at home. Stephanie Nolen tuned in to their conversation

Deanna Ledoux was backstage waiting to dance when a young man approached her. He wore only small black shorts, his thick black hair cut in a bowl shape, a block of red painted across his chest, rounds of blond wood in his earlobes.

"How is it," he asked her in Portuguese, "to be an Indian in your country?"

Ms. Ledoux, from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, speaks no Portuguese. She could sense his intense curiosity – and hers, about him, was just as strong – but she could only shrug. Then a white Brazilian journalist leaned between them and offered to translate.

Deanna Ledoux of the Treaty 6 Cree people takes a selfie with Urias Tsumey’wa of the Xarante people, left, and the Brazilian journalist who translated their encounter.

Deanna Ledoux takes a selfie with Urias Tsumey’wa, left, and the Brazilian journalist who translated their encounter.


So Ms. Ledoux, 42, told the young man – Urias Tsumey'wa from the Xavante people – about residential schools, of which she is a third-generation survivor. Mr. Tsumey'wa was astounded. "How could they just come in and take your children?" he asked. Ms. Ledoux told him it was the law, strictly enforced. "Didn't your parents fight for you?" Mr. Tsumey'wa asked. Yes, Ms. Ledoux said, and told him about seeing the police take her father away when he came to the school to try to get his children. Mr. Tsumey'wa shook his head. "If they did that to us," he said – and then drew a finger across his throat.

"It was a knife in my heart to hear about this," Mr. Tsumey'wa said later. "Because the genocide of my people, it's almost the same."

Mr. Tsumey'wa and Ms. Ledoux had their powerful and unlikely moment of connection at the World Indigenous Peoples Games that wrap up on Saturday in this sun-baked city in the centre of Brazil.


Organizationally, the Games were a shambles; politically, they were hotly debated. But they were also a remarkable venue for discovery for indigenous people who found unexpected echoes of their own challenges in the stories of people from wildly different lands.

"It was very interesting for me to talk to her," said Mr. Tsumey'way, who is 39 and a community health worker. "Before I thought that things were better for indigenous people elsewhere, and now I know that the story of Brazil is the story of everywhere." The Xavante people have a child mortality rate 10 times higher than that of non-indigenous Brazilians.

Ms. Ledoux, who is the First Nations child advocate for Saskatchewan, joined a demonstration staged by Xavante and other peoples against a proposed Brazilian law that would restrict the creation of new indigenous reserves. "My hope is that they know that some of us [from outside Brazil] are aware," she said. "I came here to dance, but also to talk to as many people as I can."


Many countries and regions hold indigenous Games, but this first world gathering was years in the making. Chief Wilton Littlechild, of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, first suggested global Games at a congress of indigenous peoples in 1977. He had been organizing Games in Alberta for several years, and then helped those become North America-wide. "And move the clock forward 30 years, here we are in Brazil. It's an opportunity to live out our dream," he said this week.

Most of the indigenous Games in North America have a roster of sports much like those at the Olympics. But early on, organizers decided that this gathering would focus on traditional activities such as archery, swimming and log-carrying. Yet it was complicated to build out a full roster of competitions because indigenous peoples from places as far apart as Siberia, Squamish and New Zealand have few traditional sports in common. Tug-of-war is big in indigenous communities in the Philippines, while a Brazilian people called the Paresi Haliti brought jikunahati, a fast-moving, physically gruelling game of passing a small ball that can be struck only with the head.

Organizers decreed that the sports would be played only in traditional ways. So, for example, archers had to make their equipment and not use graphite arrows, while swimmers could not use goggles and runners had to race barefoot. (That rule was revoked when competitors pointed out that they had to run on asphalt here, and it was scorching.)

Then there were huge cultural differences: The Canadian delegation, for example, includes a first-rate archer. But she's a woman – Heather O'Watch from the Okanese First Nation – and some Brazilian communities forbid women from touching bows and arrows. As a compromise, female archers were relegated to demonstration status.

The men's archery competition drew the widest field of contenders, from Mongolia to Panama; the Brazilian tribes, some of whom continue to hunt with bows and arrows for at least part of their food supply, were definitive leaders here. Spear-throwing also drew a competitive field.

Other sports, however, such as canoeing, were made demonstration-only, since many of the nations participating had no experience in them. The Canadians who ventured down to the canoe trials found themselves clambering into a shallow, tippy boat hewn from a log, steered with stubby, heavy paddles – nothing at all like an agile birch-bark canoe.

A sort of free-for-all atmosphere prevailed in many of the competitions, with hastily cobbled-together teams deciding to make a first crack at competitions such as tug-of-war and the race carrying logs. Six participants had to be carried out of the first tug-of-war competition on stretchers, several because they got so engrossed in the pulling that they forgot to breathe and fainted.

The one exception to the traditional sports rule was soccer, the non-indigenous game that the most indigenous people seem to have in common, which was the most organized and professional part of the Games. Canada fielded a women's team through the Native Indian Football Association, based in in Vancouver. The team swept through the tournament, defeating the Brazilian Kanela people (whose players had never before played in cleats or on a proper field), and a team of older, sturdy Peruvian women.

On Friday night, the Canadians played for the championship against the Xerente – on whose lands the city of Palmas has been built. The stadium was packed to over-capacity, and many Xerente fans expressed their support with body paint and nose-whistles. The game was tense and hard-fought, and the teams were tied 0-0 at the end of regular time. Canada finally clinched the title 3-1 in penalties, which had the mostly-teenaged team shrieking deliriously but left the crowd slumped in disappointment. "We came to win," was the circumspect mantra of coach Dano Thorne, all week long.


One morning early in the Games, I was hunting for the Canadian delegation and tried to get into the exhibition hall. A security guard, an Afro-descendant Brazilian, stopped me at the door to say it wasn't open yet. I told him that I was looking for the Canadians. He looked over his shoulder at the hall, quizzically, then told me, "The Canadians aren't in here. There are no white people in here. Just indigenous."

It was a funny moment, but it was emblematic of one odd facet of the Games: While Brazil was represented by delegations from 23 different indigenous nations (there are 305 in the country), the other participants were listed by the country on their passport cover. Yet Canada's football team, alone, is made of seven different nations, from Akwesasne to 'Namgis – and not all the participants appreciated being identified by what they consider the colonized name of their country. It took several days before athletes persuade the announcers in the arena to identify international competitors by their indigenous group – Cheyenne, for example, or Mapuche. And Deanna Ledoux battled with the Brazilian staff in the accreditation centre on her first day to have her badge changed: from "Canada" to "Treaty 6."

"I had to argue the whole Canadian history with them," she said, "to get them to see that Canada resides in my country. Canada is not my country." She had expected organizers of an indigenous event to understand that. After a few days, she said, she began to see that the Brazilians are in some ways decades behind Canada in terms of their political organization and representation.

Deanna Ledoux’s participant badge for the World Indigenous Games.

Deanna Ledoux’s participant badge for the World Indigenous Peoples Games.

But Carlos Terena, the Brazilian who put the Games together, said his goal was to help what he called "more Westernized" indigenous groups get closer to the Brazilian experience of traditional Games. Mr. Terena said he organized the first Brazilian Games in 1996, but found that the only sport anyone cared about watching was soccer. It took him years to build interest in actual aboriginal sports, he said. He travelled Brazil seeking out tribes whose traditional cultures were the most healthy and alive, in an effort to stoke envy and a revival effort in other groups. "Now we're trying to do the same thing with the world, bringing the most Westernized indigenous people and awakening it in them."

Surveying the bustle of the Games site, he said one of his early inspirations was the 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams. "Except instead of a ballfield, I built a place to bring the customs of my past," he said. He defended the Games from the criticism of the tribes who chose to boycott, or protested outside, charging that the approximately $30-million spent on the competition would have been better spent on health care and education, or on boosting the weak enforcement of the laws protecting indigenous land against deforestation and illegal mining. The money for the Games came from the federal sports budget, he said. "And if we don't spend it, the white people will get it to do something else."

And, he added, "you can't put a price on a Cree meeting a Maori."


Congress considered a proposed constitutional amendment that would transfer the right to demarcate indigenous lands from the executive branch to Congress itself. Congress is heavily influenced by the powerful agribusiness lobby that has bitterly opposed the zoning of indigenous reserves in the past. While contestants in spear-throwing were facing off in the main stadium on Thursday, a key congressional committee approved the amendment – although it must still pass the full lower house and senate.

"Because of this law, people who don't have their land yet won't get it and those who do have it will get white people coming in and building a dam or something else," said Simmaitedzi Xacriaba, 16, a member of the Xacriaba nation, whose territory is not demarcated and is in Mato Grosso do Sul, the site of the most intense land conflict today between indigenous people and large-scale agriculture in Brazil. She was a part of several small protests that popped up at the Games. The government staged the Games "right in the middle of the debate on this law and most indigenous people are here and are distracted," she said.

Chief Littlechild, who for years has advocated for indigenous people at international human-rights bodies including that of the United Nations, said he understood that concern. "It can give an appearance that things are fine, and it could mask the real situation of what's going on with poverty and land issues," he said. "The flip side is it gives those voices a chance to be heard – it's a global platform that lifts up the challenges people are facing."

Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild is one of the originators of the idea of the World Indigenous Games.

Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild is one of the originators of the idea of the World Indigenous Games.


And indeed the Xacriaba protest was covered by the Brazilian media, possibly because the Xacriaba women chose to wear their traditional dress, which consists only of a short grass skirt and a feathered headdress, while the Games otherwise received little coverage within the country.

Crowds of non-indigenous Brazilians visitors filed into the grounds each evening, and formed lines around os indios (the Indians) who wore feathers and face paint, in a frenzy of selfie-ing. (Indios wearing T-shirts and board shorts slipped past unremarked.) But when the Xacriaba and other groups began to speak about the new land law, the visitors quickly shuffled off to the crafts fair.

As the Games wound down, the organizing committee had reached a provisional decision to host the next global gathering in two years in Winnipeg.

A few days after her encounter with Mr. Tsumey'wa, Ms. Ledoux and others from her family, wearing elaborate beaded regalia, danced to the beat of traditional drums in a hall at the Games. Sitting cross-legged in the front row of the audience was a young Kayapo man in a headdress made of brilliant yellow parrot feathers snapping pictures on a small camera, his eyes wide.

His name is Motu Kayapo, and he is from Para, in the Amazon. His trip to the Games was his first out of his territory. And it was a revelation.

Video: See Motu Kayapo (at right) watching the Cree dancers

"I didn't know there were indigenous people in Canada," he said, then qualified that statement. "I didn't know there were indigenous people in the rest of the world. … I knew there were other indigenous people in Brazil, from hearing about it, but I had never met any of them."

Mr. Kayapo is 23, and in high school. The Cree performance had drawn him in – the language of the young singers, and the drumbeat, were all familiar, he said, reminiscent of his own people's language. But the Cree ribbon shirts, porcupine quills and eagle feathers, those startled him – and the intricate, athletic dance was different too.

"I'm taking pictures for the people in my village who couldn't come," he said. "I think it's very beautiful."