PALMAS, Brazil – The first edition of the World Indigenous Games, which brought nearly 2,000 delegates representing first nations from around the globe to this remote outpost in the heart of Brazil, is wrapping up Saturday after nine colorful days of traditional sports, dancing, trading and cultural exchange.
The games were billed as indigenous peoples' answer to the Olympics, although the focus shifted from sports to politics after a Brazilian congressional committee approved a proposal on demarcating tribal lands that native Brazilians say would be catastrophic to their traditional ways of life.
"We see this whole thing (the games) as a tool to pull the wool over our eyes," said Antonio Apinaje, a leader of the Apinaje people, who declined to take part in the event despite living in the host state of Tocantins.
Sporadic protests erupted throughout the games, with President Dilma Rousseff drawing boos at the Oct. 21 opening ceremony and a crowd of several hundred demonstrators streaming into the arena one afternoon and forcing the suspension of the 100-meter dash competition.
The land proposal must clear several more legislative hurtles and also be signed by Rousseff in order to become law, and she has vowed she won't do that.
Many in the foreign delegations, hailing from such far-flung nations as the Philippines and Ethiopia, supported the Brazilian protesters, but others voiced disapproval for mixing politics and sports.
The cost of the games, too, irked some, with critics insisting the $14 million that Brazil's federal government pumped into the event would have been better spent improving native peoples' access to education and health care.
The indigenous population in Brazil is estimated to have numbered from 3 million to 5 million in pre-colonial days, but five centuries of disease and violence have taken a toll. There are now fewer than 1 million native Brazilians, making up only 0.5 percent of the country's 200 million people.
Representatives of around two dozen of Brazil's more than 300 tribes participated in the games, and delegations came from throughout Latin America and beyond. The Finnish delegates, representing the reindeer-herding Sami people, stood out for their fair hair and blue eyes. The Mongolians, in silk and velvet robes, commanded attention for their peerless archery skills. The sole Russian delegate drew stares for bravely defying the heat in a fur-and-rhinestone cat suit.
Everyone was constantly snapping photos of everyone else, and it wasn't unusual to see people from one indigenous group sporting the accoutrements of another.
The sporting events were restricted to activities that have traditionally formed part of native peoples' lives. In addition to archery, which caused controversy by being restricted to only men, the games included short- and middle-distance runs, tug-of-war, river swimming and canoeing, soccer, spear throwing and a log-carrying race.
Safety was a concern at Friday's swimming events, in which dozens of competitors threw themselves into the water at once, trying to swim across an arm of the Tocantins River and back. Goggles weren't allowed, and many participants didn't appear to be strong swimmers. At least a half-dozen competitors in the women's race ended up clinging to the side of a first aid boat and the winner had to be taken to a hospital.
Carol Guerreira, the winner of the women's 100-meter foot race, collapsed at the finish line. As she was bustled out of the arena on a stretcher, members of her Pataxo nation followed after, recording the scene on a tablet.
Organizers say the next edition of the World Indigenous Games will take place in Canada, though a date has yet to be set.