Is the Olympics’ use of Indigenous symbolism imprudent?

Posted by admin on Dec 9th, 2009

Christine O’Bonsawin, The Dominion, December 9, 2009

VICTORIA, BC—The inclusion of colonial narratives has forever been enshrined within the Olympic formula, and Indigenous peoples have long served the performance needs of nations whose histories rest in imperial conquest. Canada is no exception. On three occasions, including 1976 Montreal, 1988 Calgary and 2010 Vancouver, Canada has been afforded the opportunity to host the coveted Olympic Games. In each instance the inclusion of Indigenous cultures, and their complimentary images, has been a prominent countenance of the Games. However, this inclusion has not always been celebrated, nor unquestioningly accepted, by the Indigenous peoples.

The 1976 Montreal Olympic Summer Games organizers no doubt understood the symbolic value of incorporating Indigenous imagery within the programme of the first ever Olympic Games hosted on Canadian soil. During the closing ceremony of these Games, “Indians Hosts” figuratively ushered the athletes of the world into the stadium, accompanied Olympic delegates throughout the duration of the ceremony and, as one might predict, delighted national and international audiences with the traditional songs and dances of the First Peoples of Canada.

In consideration of these “traditional” songs and dances, it is important to point out that the music was based on the works of Canadian composer Andre Mathieu, and included a curious blend of western musical choreography and Indian tom-toms to songs such as “La Danse Sauvage.”

Furthermore, due to financial constraints, responsibility was put on the approximately 250 non-Indigenous people, who were painted and dressed to look like Indians, to lead 200 Indigenous people into the stadium in “traditional” dance. Within the context of 1976, it becomes clear that Olympic organizers understood the symbolic importance and powerful persuasiveness of Indigenous imagery; however, they flagrantly failed to enter into respectful dialogue with the very people they proposed to be celebrating.

In the case of the 1988 Calgary Olympic Winter Games, the inclusion of Indigenous imagery went beyond the ceremonies as organizers proactively, if not productively, included the romanticized aura of a celebrated, and noble, yet doomed, Indian past.

Despite mighty attempts to highlight indigeneity within the cultural programme, Olympic organizers experienced significant resistance from Indigenous peoples opposing the Games—notably the Lubicon Lake Cree Nation of northern Alberta. The Lubicon people were in a near century-long struggle with the provincial and federal governments for treaty recognition.

While the Games were not being hosted on Lubicon territory, Lubicon opposition to the Games was based on the provincial and federal governments’ infinite financial support of the Games as well as the sponsorship of Olympic events by corporations illegally invading non-surrendered Lubicon territory—namely Petro Canada and Shell Canada.

In one instance, the Lubicon called for a boycott of “The Spirit Sings” Olympic exhibit, which was co-sponsored by the Olympic cultural programme, the federal government, Shell Canada, and the Glenbow Museum. Lubicon leaders criticized the fact that the very entities invading Lubicon territory were sponsoring an exhibit claiming to celebrate Indigenous cultures. Their goal was to expose the hypocrisy of an exhibit that proposed to bring together Native Canadian material culture from collections around the world—material that had, essentially, been stolen hundreds of years prior.

In a second example of Indigenous opposition to the Calgary Games, supporters of the Lubicon focused resistance efforts on the Olympic torch run. While the theme of the run called for all Canadians to “Share the Flame,” the torch was met with significant opposition in every province (except PEI) as Lubicon supporters spread an alternate message reminding that if Canadians were to share the flame, they must also “Share the Blame” for the historic and ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

As we move towards 2010 Vancouver, there can be little doubt that Indigenous imagery will be a visible feature of Olympic Games programming. The inclusion of appropriated Indigenous imagery, including the logo (Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq—the Inukshuk) and the mascots (Miga, a mythical sea bear, Quatchi, a sasquatch and Sumi, a guardian spirit), has caused significant unrest amongst Indigenous peoples and their supporters; however, one must not forget that larger political, social, and economic realities loom overhead.

One might argue that the imprudent inclusion of Indigenous insignia within past and present Canadian Olympic hosting practices, particularly in the absence of respectful consultation and dialogue, is introspective of the ongoing mistreatment and disregard for Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous opposition to the 2010 Games has rallied under a public campaign calling for “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.” The Indigenous peoples of British Columbia (as do the Lubicon Cree) require honourable treaties—not Olympic circuses that continue to trivialize the political, social, and economic injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Dr. Christine O’Bonsawin is a specialist in Indigenous sport history, Canadian sport history as well as Indigenous/Indian policy. She teaches at the University of Victoria.

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