First ever ‘Indigenous Olympics’ kick starts in Brazil

Over 2,000 athletes from around world meet in Brazil to participate in first "Indigenous Olympics"

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Indigenous people from the Kibatsa ethnic group place their headdresses on a soccer field at the World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Brazil, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015.

What's billed as the first "indigenous Olympics" kicked off Thursday with a raucous cultural mash-up that saw grimacing Maori warriors, gong-bearing Filipinos and feather-crowned tribespeople from Brazil preside over a traditional fire-lighting ceremony.

The World Indigenous Games officially opens Friday, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected to attend a lavish opening ceremony in the games' host city, Palmas, a remote outpost in the sunbaked heart of Brazil.

But Thursday's fire ritual, which saw hundreds of indigenous people from around the world converge on Palmas' central square decked out in their traditional finest, set the tone for the coming event, which runs through Oct. 31.

Tribal representatives spontaneously broke into traditional song and dance as the media and other indigenous peoples from as far afield as Ethiopia and Mongolia formed tight, flashbulb-popping, iPhone-snapping circles around them.

A phalanx of Maoris from New Zealand, looking fierce with wide-eyed stares and menacing throat-slicing gestures, appeared to stand guard over the knot of Manoti men from Brazil's central Mato Grosso state as they labored over the fire, finally emerging triumphant with a flaming torch.

A womens soccer team after a game at the World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Brazil, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015.

Elvis Balabal Julius of the Philippines' Igorot people hailed the event as "amazing."

"It's my first time outside of the Philippines and I took five planes to get here," said Julius, 23, sporting only a loincloth and the metal gong with which he and two other tribe members had entranced their audience. "I never thought I would see so many indigenous peoples together. 

We're very similar and very different at the same time."

The upbeat mood of the fire ceremony contrasted with the palpable anger at a protest earlier in the day by a small group of Brazilian indigenous people denouncing what they said was poor organization and unnecessary spending on the games.

About a dozen protesters decried the event's more than $14 million price tag, saying the money provided by several government sources as well as the United Nations would have been better spent improving the conditions of Brazil's impoverished indigenous peoples.

Narube Werreria said she saw the event as a bid to cover up the real situation of Brazil's beleaguered indigenous populations.

"The government is using the event to cover our eyes and say everything is all right here," said 

Werreria, a state government employee from the Karaja tribe, whose lands are near Palmas. "But everything is not all right."

Estimated to have numbered from between 3 million to 5 million in pre-colonial times, Brazil's indigenous people now make up just 0.5 percent of the country's 200 million-strong population. 

They face rampant poverty and discrimination and clash frequently with farmers, ranchers and illegal miners eager to oust them from their ancestral lands.

"In Brazil, soy plants are better treated than Indians," Cacique Doran, a leader of the Tupi Guarani people, shouted at the protest.