Friday marked the official opening of the XIX Olympic Winter games – an event traditionally marked by increasingly crass and self-referencing opening ceremonies by the chosen host city. This year, as in the last two decades, the ceremonies had little to do with athletics or athletes, and more to do with presenting the international television audience with a glowing tribute to the strengths, characteristics and achievements of the host city. Salt Lake’s presentation was at times nauseatingly wholesome, yet strikingly familiar.
Part of the familiarity was due to some presentation features that were borrowed from ceremonies held by previous host cities (e.g. the audience was made part of the show by wearing matching white smocks and holding bright lights, as they did in the Calgary ceremonies) and by the Canadian commentary which has been done by the same announcers for many years. The Salt Lake ceremonies mimicked both the Calgary and Sydney, Australia ceremonies in another way, however: All three cities utilized the time-honoured tradition of hauling out and dressing up the local aboriginals to give their ceremonies a touch of tribal colour and spiritual authenticity.
This is not to say that the natives peoples have no place in the celebrations, but their vaunted place in the show implies a relationship between the native reserves and the cities that simply does not exist. The natives in the Salt Lake ceremonies were introduced as the ‘Five Nations of Utah.’ An impressive sounding title that may convince foreigners that these tribal chiefs are truly leaders of strong, independently governed nations within Utah’s borders. A similar picture was painted at the Calgary ceremonies, and is repeated every time Calgary vies for the privilege of hosting any international event. Whenever proposals to host events are sent out of the country, you can be sure that dozens of colourfully dressed Indians with drums and hoops will accompany the entourage.
It is no surprise that this always happens. Canada, America, and Australia are all powerful, rich, first world nations that can boast nearly limitless funding, technology and organizational experience when vying for host duties, but they are all distinctly lacking in cultural panache. As a Canadian, I loved the Aboriginal music, symbolism and dance used in the Australian ceremonies because the Aborigines in full tribal getup look fantastic and have such unique spiritual symbols and music compared to the dominant Australian culture. No doubt many Europeans love to see our Indians dance and chant for the same reasons.
Organizers of international events know all of this, but do not be deceived. The ‘celebration’ of native peoples in this manner also effectively masks the uneasy relationship that exists between the indigenous and dominant cultures in most New World countries. In North America, there is a prevalent notion that Australians honour and cherish the culture of their aboriginal peoples, when in reality the relationship between the two cultures has been uneasy, and there is still great controversy (http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2000/424/424p3.htm) over the Australian government’s treatment of aboriginal affairs. Undoubtedly, the same misunderstanding persists among European viewers of North American events.
Our use of Native American people and images in our most important presentations shows that Canadians and Americans understand that Aboriginal culture and spirituality are integral to our sense of Canadian cultural identity, though we may not recognize this on a daily basis. The aboriginals’ animal-inspired costumes and haunting, primal songs remind us of our collective history as pioneers in this land, and of our inevitable link to nature despite our ever-increasing reliance on technology. We welcome this reminder, and without it, our presentations may seem drab and lack spirituality.
There is no question that Native Americans are a part of our land and that they should be included in our national celebrations, so why, then, does it always seem like we are including ‘token Indians?’ Salt Lake went so far as to have their five First Nations’ Chiefs give gifts to five Olympic athletes to signify that the Nations had sanctioned the opening of the games. This kind of sentiment rings hollow when we realize that until 1980, one of those celebrated Five Nations – the Paiute – was refused recognition and funding by the American government, resulting in “nearly one-half of all tribal members [perishing] during this period for lack of health resources and lack of adequate income to meet their needs” (http://www.dced.state.ut.us/indian/Today/paiute.html). Even today, conditions on the Navajo reservation (the largest of the five Nations with over 270,000 members) in Utah “are comparable to those found in some underdeveloped third world countries. According to the 1990 Census, about 56 percent of Navajo people live below the poverty level … the average annual per capita income a Navajo person is $4,106, … and unemployment ranges from 36 percent to over 50 percent seasonally. Many Navajo homes lack electricity, running water, telephones, or all of those basic services” (http://www.dced.state.ut.us/indian/Today/dine.html).
The plight of Canadians and Australian aboriginals is in many places comparable to that of the Navajo. The inclusion of Aboriginals in cultural events may seem to indicate that the First Nations have an honoured place in our society, but in reality it would be more appropriate to say that Natives are ‘utilized’ than that they are ‘included.’ Nowhere has this distinction been more apparent than in Salt Lake’s Pioneer Jamboree segment, in which a large portion of the cheery Mormon settlers were played by aboriginal actors. It is untrue, it smacks of tokenism, and it should offend us all.