Published November 15, 2013
CUIABA, Brazil – Body paint in place of uniforms. Bare feet instead of high-tech shoes. And a loose notion of competition that assigns little value to winning.
Welcome to the 12th Indigenous Games being held in Brazil's Amazon region, a cultural as much as athletic event that many are calling a "holistic" alternative to the big sporting extravaganzas Brazil will host in the next few years, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later.
"We're not looking to crown champions or find great athletes," said Carlos Terena, organizer of the games, who like many indigenous Brazilians uses his tribe's name as his surname. "This isn't about competition, it's about celebration. Competition is more a thing for the Western world anyway."
More than 1,500 participants from 48 Brazilian tribes, as well as from more than a dozen other nations, descended this week on Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso state, for the games that end Saturday. All participants will earn "medals" carved from wood, seeds and other natural items.
The more traditional tribal sports are carried out as exhibitions rather than competitions.
A crowd favorite is a wild tree-trunk relay race, with nine or more stout runners sprinting about 550 yards (500 meters) around a red-dirt arena, taking turns carrying a 220-pound (100-kilo) chunk of tree over their shoulders. Just getting to the finish line is considered victory.
Another sport called "xikunahity" resembles soccer, but with players crawling along the ground, only permitted to use their heads to push the ball forward. Several tribes have exhibited their own traditional forms of fighting, most resembling wrestling or judo.
Other events test the real-life skills of indigenous peoples, like archery, with bare-chested participants confidently carrying simple long bows, putting their toes along a line of long palm leaves laid down on the earth. About 40 yards away sits their target, the large drawn figure of a smiling fish leaping from the water, with most points scored for drilling the arrow right into its eye.
"This is the fourth time I'm participating in these games and for me they represent a cultural revival more than anything," said Yakari Kuikuro, who lives on the Xingu river in the Amazon and is part of his tribe's tug-of-war team. "Many of my family members stopped painting their bodies, they no longer dance in the villages. When I come here, I see pure Indians, with body paint, dancing together. It's important for others to see this and take it back to their villages."
Chief Willie Littlechild of the Cree Nation, a former member of Canada's Parliament, said attending the games was "truly a blessing, to see that such a rich culture exists with indigenous peoples around the world."
For the non-indigenous people in attendance, Littlechild said he hoped the games allowed them "to join us in a celebration of life, to join us in our holistic approach to wellness, to the physical, the mental, cultural and spiritual well-being of humans."
The games are held on a 17-acre (7-hectare) chunk of park, with large, white plastic tents dotting the land, each holding tables full of traditional crafts, like small pottery figures, wooden bowls, woven cloth and delicately carved musical instruments meant to mimic the songs of jungle birds.
Other tables hold the seeds of dozens of types of edible plants. Food security is one of the main themes of this year's event, with tribes from all corners of Brazil encouraged to trade seeds and take unknown varieties back to their villages.
Amelia Reina Montero, from the Nahua tribe of Mexico who was making her first trip to Brazil, succinctly summed up the prevailing mood of the gathering, saying it offered the rare chance for tribes from the Americas, often with limited contact to the outside world, to interact and learn from one another.
"Despite that fact that our languages are different, that are skin varies, we're uniting here with one heart," she said. "That's the Indian way."
Associated Press Television News cameraman Mario Lobao contributed to this report.