After the Indians had their moment in the spotlight, they danced back into history, making way for miners, cowboys and settlers of all races to do-se-do together (as if that ever happened in that place and time). Only the Indians were missing from the hoedown in Salt Lake. But these are just symbols, you say? Well, yeah. Mega-bucks worth of symbols. Symbology that reaches millions of people around the world and leaves a lasting impression in the place of reality.
Suzan Shown Harjo, “Indians in the Olympics Ceremony?
Postcard from the Past”
As a fair-skinned âpihtawikosis-âniskwéw (Cree-Métis woman), I am one of many Indigenous peoples who have been, as Emma Larocque writes, “hounded and haunted by White North America’s image machine.”1 I became interested in researching Indigenous involvement in the Olympics after one of my cousins forwarded to me in September 2009 the application to attend the Indigenous Youth Gathering (iyg) to be held from January 30 to February 14, 2010. The Vancouver 2010 Olympics were slated to start on February 12 and run until February 28; since the iyg was to end just a couple of days after the opening of the games, it was clear that applicants were being tapped to play some role in the opening of the games. Given the involvement of Indigenous peoples in previous Olympic opening and closing ceremonies (in 1976 and 1988), it was not a stretch to assume we would play a role in Vancouver’s opening ceremony.
This was made clearer by the fact that the application form requests [End Page 479] that we include two full-length color photographs of ourselves wearing traditional clothing, clothing that we would be expected to bring with us to the gathering. The application encourages youth to, “where applicable,” incorporate accessories such as roaches/masks, hair ornaments, face or body paint, earrings/pendants, arm or leg bracelets or bands, skins/furs/bark, footwear, and instruments or drums and rattles. The application asks, however, that applicants “not wear non-traditional clothing” (a.k.a. “contemporary” clothing) in the photos.2 This was the first gathering application, out of the many that I’d seen, that required a picture to be included in the application. Having my moccasins, my Métis sash, and my dad’s moosehide jacket, I wasn’t sure that even with all this and my “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” T-shirt I’d be “Aboriginal enough” to be selected, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to find out—or that I wanted anyone affiliated with the Olympic organizing committee to decide whether or not I was.
This experience has inspired me to question more deeply the nature of Indigenous involvement in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony. Indigenous peoples have been involved in each of the Canadian-hosted Olympics (to varying degrees), and, given my encounter with the 2010 iyg application form, I came to question the nature of organizational committees’ motives with regard to Indigenous performance in ceremonies. Why are we so popular? The 1976 Montréal Summer Olympic closing ceremony, the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic opening ceremony, and the 2010 Winter Olympic opening ceremony in Vancouver each placed Indigenous peoples at the heart of its expressions of regional, provincial, and Canadian national identity in one form or another.
Why is it that organizing committees view Indigenous peoples as central to Olympic ceremonies and as so seemingly central to the narratives of national identity produced during them? What is Canada trying to say about itself by insisting on Indigenous presence within the Olympic ceremonies when in so many other spaces in Canadian society we are purposefully invisibilized? I argue that while earlier national narratives alluded to the racial superiority of “white” Canadians and their hand in subjugating/civilizing Indigenous populations, in recent decades it has become far less fashionable to insinuate such things. Canada has thus consistently drawn on the multiculturalist rhetoric (of equality) as a framework for narrating Canadian-Indigenous relations.
The amplified international attention brought by the Olympics has [End Page 480] meant that Canada has had to find new ways to suppress...