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Indigenous competitors celebrate culture and sport in Brazil


AP Sports Writer

PIACAGUERA INDIGENOUS LAND, Brazil (AP) — As a bonfire lit by children finished burning, the winners at the first Indigenous Games of Peruibe calmly welcomed their wooden medals around their necks with little fanfare otherwise.

The spectators, though, screamed and howled around the village’s arena as defeated competitors applauded in between smokes of their pipes.

The two-day competition last weekend in southern Sao Paulo state was not exactly the Olympics, but some of the friendly spirit of the past echoed among about 120 athletes of the Guarani, Tupi-Guarani and Fulnió ethnicities — plus 21 of their non-Indigenous friends allowed to compete at the Piacaguera Indigenous land.

The program was a mix of white imports and local traditions; archery, tug of war, soccer, a Brazilian Indigenous wrestling named Uca-Uca, a log carrying relay race on the beach, dart blowing and others. The spear and rock throwing competitions were suspended because of rainy weather. There weren’t enough people to play in the Indigenous badminton category, so it was canceled.

The Indigenous peoples spread among 17 villages around Peruibe, a beachfront city 138 kilometers (86 miles) south of Sao Paulo, frequently hold their sporting events during other celebrations of their culture. But one year ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics there is enough interest among youngsters for a solo sports competition, which elders expect to reinforce their heritage in the region.

“We didn’t expect so many people here, among competitors and visitors,” chief Awa Tenondegua dos Santos told The Associated Press.

Wearing Paris Saint-Germain shorts and black paint on his body, he competed — and lost — in every sport he played during the games.

“This is more fun than anything else. We are not the Olympic Games,” he said. “But we are a success, too.”

Organizers say at least 500 people showed up for the event, in an area smaller than five soccer fields, but invitingly close to a beach and a lake where locals swim all year round. Dozens chose to camp around the village from Friday to Sunday and live out in the open like the Indigenous.

April is Brazil’s Indigenous Awareness Month, an occasion that is once again widely celebrated under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, was a critic of Indigenous celebrations and repeatedly said the original peoples would be better off by joining whites as one nation and fostering economic activities that often hurt the environment, such as mining and logging. The Indigenous Games of Peruibe are a response to that, according to elder Dario Tunpan.

“I’ve taken part in other Indigenous Games, including some very big ones in the Amazon, but these are the first after a troubled four years for us,” said Tunpan, who came from the Southern Santa Catarina state to watch the events as he calmly blessed competitors with his hands. “Now archery is once again about fun. We live our lives around the arrows, the spears. Having this as competition is very different from a while ago, when we thought we also needed those weapons to defend ourselves.”

Many of the Brazilian Indigenous believe anyone above the age of 10 should be considered an adult, which sometimes puts strong contenders face to face with very young beginners in sport. In her grass skirt and a feathered headdress, teenager Suri Jará finished third in the women’s archery competion. The home support of the members of the village of Tapirema, where the games took place, gave her a boost.

“This is not a real competition, we are here to make friends, but it is nice to see I did well against them,” Jará said. “I don’t listen to people roaring like this every day. It felt special.”

Archery is a clear link between the Indigenous Games in Peruibe and the Olympics, which has had the sport on its program since the 1900 Paris Games. The competitors in Brazil, who missed most of their shots and disappointed the non-Indigenous for their lack of accuracy, had to hit one out of three pieces of wood from about 20 meters (65 feet). At the Olympics, archers shoot from at least 50 meters (164 feet) at a five-colour target with 10 scoring zones in gold, red, blue, black and white rings.

Soccer and tug of war, which was once an Olympic sport, are the two imports from whites that the Indigenous love to play. Visitors, however, were more interested in the typically local competitions.

The log carrying relay race is popular among the Indigenous all over Brazil. Some of those races take place with logs that weigh about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and with as many as 10 competitors in each team. In Peruibe, the organization sliced logs from a kind of palm tree that was cut after rituals and gave them to four team’s of two per race. The heaviest of the pieces, used in the men’s tournament, weighed about 5 kilograms (11 pounds). The lightest, for children, was one tenth of that.

The pinnacle of the games for fans, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, came Sunday afternoon after the best warriors of the three groups — and some beginners, too — gathered for the gruelling Uca-Uca wrestling competition. The rules for the brawl on the sand are simple; fighters must make their rivals fall on their backs without using their legs, much like sumo. No breaks.

“That’s the traditional Uca-Uca, but we know some fighters have some jiu-jitsu techniques up their sleeves,” said Guaciane da Silva Gomes, one of the leaders of the Tapirema village. “That is fine. We are here to show our culture, but we also embrace what is good in others. We are not here to impose, we just want to be seen and respected as we are.”

As soon as the Uca-Uca tournament was finished, the bonfire was put out. It will be lit again at the same time next year, probably in another village close by, shortly before the Paris Olympics begin.


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