While the 6ft-tall Maoris of New Zealand took on a diminutive Amazonian tribe at tug of war, teenagers from Brazil’s Paresi people warmed up for head football and a group of adolescent girls breached security to protest over land rights.
The inaugural World Indigenous Games in Brazil was as chaotic as it was colourful.
With more than 2,000 athletes from around 30 different countries, the first international multi-sport event for native people was an unruly clash of tradition and modernity, politics and performance.
Teams from as far away as the US and Canada, the Philippines and Pakistan, mingled with 20 of Brazil’s indigenous groups, all in traditional feathered costume and body paint made from the genipap fruit.
Yet when a volunteer brought one of the tribes a food box inside the sand-covered arena, a young indian in a bright yellow and red woven costume whipped out a mobile phone to take her picture.
The Mexican team wore t-shirts advertising their ballgame – one of the oldest sports in the world – via their Facebook page. And as the Mongolian delegation gave a demonstration of their native archery – using their iconic curved bow and a long-distance target – the presenter roused spectators with a baseball crowd-style slow-clap.
The message of the event, which took place in the sweltering, dusty city of Palmas in the heart of Brazil, was this: the most important thing is not winning but celebrating.
And the Games, which officially close tomorrow (31 October) seemed to celebrate the survival of indigenous sports and culture against all odds and all threats.
While the event was on-going, a special commission approved a constitutional amendment that transferred the right to demarcate indigenous land from Brazil’s executive power to the National Congress.
“If this amendment is approved, we’ll lose our culture, we’ll lose our land, we’ll lose everything,” said Danielle Xakriabá, 19, who managed to enter the arena with placards despite her people not being invited to take part in the Games. “There won’t be anywhere for us to live nor to practice our culture.”
But while some used the Games as a platform to protest against abuses, others used them to promote their unique culture. One of the demonstration sports was xikunahati, or head football, a game mainly played by the Paresi people from the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil’s wetlands.
Traditionally played with a homemade rubber ball, teams of eight to 10 players head the ball to one another, scoring points when their opponent can’t return it.
As the team of Paresi boys warmed up in their distinctive yellow and red dress, they practised diving for the ball, their bodies inches from the ground.
Jücinaldo Ezenozokemaecê, 18, said his people played head football, or headball, from childhood, as well as playing normal football.
But age-old rules still apply: girls are forbidden from playing.
“It’s important for the Brazilian people to know what we play, to know our own sports,” he said. “We’re proud of this.”
He said the Games had been an opportunity to get to know other indigenous people.
“I’ve talked to some of the other ethnic groups and even though we don’t speak the same language, we can take photos together, to record the memories,” he added.
One of the biggest demonstration hits was the Mexican ballgame, a pre-Hispanic sport that looks like a mix of tennis and volleyball.
Originally played across Mesoamerica by the Aztecs, two teams volleyed a heavy rubber ball between one another using a padded glove made of leather, which weighs between four and six kilograms.
The court was often sacred ground and the game sometimes carried symbolic or ritualistic significance, ending in human sacrifice.
The Mexican ballgame, called pelota mixteca, originated from the southern indigenous state of Oaxaca. But for Eduardo Arellanes, who plays the ballgame in a team with his four brothers, the sport must move with the times.
“Often it was a ritual or spiritual ceremony, and it’s important to understand its roots so as not to lose it,” he said. “But now, there’s a strong project to turn it into a normal, practiced sport in schools, in sports clubs, so we keep it going.”
The sport, which was brought to Mexico City by immigrants looking for a better life, has already spread to the US and even Japan.
Although Arellanes said it wasn’t difficult to keep the ball in the air with hard punches that sent it looping overhead, those from other tribes found it difficult to direct the ball when they gave it a try.
Meanwhile, archers from different tribes and generations got to grips with different bows and arrows. Archery’s answer to Neymar, 17-year-old Marcus Vinicius D’Almeida, tried out the indigenous bows of the Pataxó people from the north-eastern state of Bahia.
“It serves to show the difference between bow and arrow, and archery,” D’Almeida said. “My sport is professional, and the bow and arrow comes from indigenous culture.
“We have a lot to learn from these people. The indians have practised the art for a long time. It’s interesting to see the range of bows that exist here.”
While the spirit of the Games may have been all about shared experiences and taking part, victory away from the arena came in the form of greater awareness.
“It’s a very elaborate event with the presence of people from all over the world,” a spokesman for the organisers said.
“The Games are not just about sports, they are cultural, they are artistic. This is a more humanist event to publicise to the world what is happening here.”
Originally published by VICE Sports
All photos: Matt Taylor