Born of the National Indigenous Games, which had been held in Brazil since 1996, last October saw Palmas host the first international gathering of tribal athletes, with over 2,000 competitors representing more than 30 countries. Most were from North, Central and South America, but a few from tribes based in Russia, DRC, Ethiopia, Philippines and Mongolia also took part, many travelling outside of their home nation for the first time in their lives.
According to the organisers, the World Indigenous Games were ‘an opportunity for indigenous peoples from all parts of the globe to share their values in the face of the modern world’s onslaught on their cultures.’
While some of the sports would feel familiar to Western viewers (athletics, swimming, football), there were also events that were more traditional to the lives of those taking part. Xikunahati, for instance, a football-style game in which no part of the body save for the head is allowed to touch the ball. Corrida de Tora is a relay foot race where teams carry 100kg tree trunks on their shoulders around the arena. Or the visually spectacular Pelota Purépecha, a traditional hockey-style game played with a ball of fire.
Photojournalist Sue Cunningham has been documenting Brazil’s indigenous people for over 20 years and is a trustee of Tribes Alive, a charity with the purpose of working with tribes and local communities to promote self-sufficiency and well-being. Her photographs of the Games (exhibited earlier this year at the Brazilian embassy in London), not only celebrate the sporting and physical prowess of the participants, but show how despite the differences in their histories and native environments, indigenous people share many common aspects to their identity and can find strength in unity.
The next World Indigenous Games are set to be hosted in Canada in 2017.