Body paint in place of branded sportswear, bare feet instead of hi-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, many are calling the tournament a holistic alternative to the big sporting extravaganzas coming up on Brazil’s calendar – the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later.
“We’re not looking to crown champions or find great athletes,” said Carlos Terena, the organiser of the games, who, like many indigenous Brazilians, uses his ethnic group’s name as his surname. “This isn’t about competition, it’s about celebration. Competition is more a thing for the western world anyway.”
This week, more than 1,500 participants from 48 Brazilian ethnic groups, as well as from more than a dozen other nations, have descended on Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso state, for the games that end on Saturday. All participants will earn medals carved from wood, seeds and other natural items.
The more traditional sports are carried out as exhibitions rather than competitions.
A crowd favourite is the wild tree-trunk relay race, with nine or more stout runners sprinting about 500 metres around a red-dirt arena, taking turns carrying a 100kg chunk of tree on their shoulders. Just getting to the finish line is considered a victory.
Another sport, called xikunahity, resembles football, but with players crawling along the ground, only permitted to use their heads to push the ball forward.
Several groups have exhibited their own forms of fighting, most resembling wrestling or judo. Other events test the real-life skills of indigenous peoples, such as archery, with bare-chested participants confidently carrying simple long bows, putting their toes along a line of palm leaves laid on the ground. About 40 metres away sits their target, the large drawn figure of a smiling fish leaping from the water, with the 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 ethnic group’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 and 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 there, 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 wellbeing of humans”.
The games are held on a 7-hectare park, with large, white, plastic tents dotting the area, each holding tables full of crafts, such as 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 ethnic groups from throughout Brazil encouraged to trade seeds and take unknown varieties back to their villages.
Amelia Reina Montero, from the Nahua ethnic group of Mexico who was making her first trip to Brazil, summed up the prevailing mood of the gathering, saying it offered the rare chance for ethnic groups 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 our skin varies, we’re uniting here with one heart,” she said. “That’s the Indian way.”