Archers, wrestlers and runners from ethnic groups from around the world have all descended on the Brazilian Amazon city of Palmas to take part in the world’s first Indigenous Games.
The sporting event, which is bringing together athletes from more than 20 countries, officially opens on Friday with a ceremony expected to be attended by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Over the next 10 days, participants will compete in 10 sports ranging from running and swimming to wrestling and football, as well as more traditional games like spear throwing and racing with heavy logs.
This year’s event marks the first time that Brazil has opened its annual indigenous games to foreigners.
Reporting from Palmas, Al Jazeera’s Virginia Lopez said the event is about more than just sport.
“Brazil has been holding Indigenous Games for close to two decades now, but this is the first time ever that other tribes from around the world – as far as from New Zealand and Russia – have joined in,” she said.
“Certainly, it’s a sporting event, but the organisers have stressed that it’s not your traditional type of sporting event and the emphasis is also cultural and spiritual – so very much a coming together of indigenous people from around the world.”
Proceedings kicked off on Thursday with a spectacular fire-lighting ceremony, which saw hundreds of indigenous people from around the world converge on Palmas’ central square and break into traditional song and dance.
Elvis Balabal Julius of the Philippines’ Igorot people told AP that the event was “amazing”.
“It’s my first time outside of the Philippines, and I took five planes to get here,” said the 23-year-old, sporting only a loincloth and the metal gong with which he and two other tribe members had entranced their audience.
“I never thought I would see so many indigenous people together. We’re very similar and very different at the same time.”
Yet, the upbeat mood of the fire ceremony contrasted with the palpable anger at a protest earlier in the day by a small group of Brazilian indigenous people denouncing what they said was poor organisation and unnecessary spending on the games.
About a dozen protesters decried the event’s more than $14m price tag, saying the money provided by several government sources as well as the UN would have been better spent improving the conditions of Brazil’s impoverished indigenous peoples.
Narube Werreria told AP that she saw the event as a bid to cover up the real situation of Brazil’s beleaguered indigenous populations.
“The government is using the event to cover our eyes and say everything is all right here,” said Werreria, a state government employee from the Karaja tribe, whose lands are near Palmas. “But everything is not all right.”
Estimated to have numbered from between three million to five million in pre-colonial times, Brazil’s indigenous people now make up just 0.5 percent of the country’s 200m-strong population. They face rampant poverty and discrimination and clash frequently with farmers, ranchers and illegal miners eager to oust them from their ancestral lands.
“In Brazil, soy plants are better treated than Indians,” Cacique Doran, a leader of the Tupi-Guarani people, shouted at the protest.