The Vancouver opening ceremonies: honoring Canadian First Nations?

In First Nations, indigenous, opening ceremonies, Vancouver Games by Adrienne K.11 Comments

I didn’t get to watch the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver games live (I didn’t have a TV-until today!), but I was getting constant text message updates along the lines of: “girl, tell me you are watching the opening ceremonies! hella First Nations!” So I finally got around to watching them online and capturing some screen shots of the best parts.
I have very mixed feelings about the opening ceremonies–on one hand, it was fantastic to see the extensive Native presence (when has the US ever done anything like  this?) and a lot of it was culturally sensitive and true portrayals.
But, on the other hand, there were a few cringe worthy moments playing into stereotypes, and the involvement of the First Nations in the games masks a lot of the ongoing issues in Canadian Government/Native relations. 
After the jump, a bazillion more screen shots (once I figured out how to do it, I got a bit over eager) and analysis. 

The First Nations “welcome” was very early on in the ceremony, and it started with the four “host Nations”–the four tribes that are indigenous to the Vancouver area welcoming the crowd and the athletes. The image above shows the Lil’wat nation seal–the floor changed as each community said a welcome in their language. The four host nations are the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples.

As each community did their welcome and raised their arms, these big ‘ol “totems” raised their arms too. I thought that was a little silly. 

This is a shot of one of the “totems” raising its arms. 
Dennis Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. This one is nice. haha.

After the four Host Nations welcomed everyone, they introduced the other Indigenous groups in Canada: The Metis, First Nations of the Prairie, the East, the West, and the Inuit…am I forgetting anyone? Each group came in wearing their traditional regalia (with a little powwow regalia thrown in there) and dancing more or less in the styles of their communities. 

Fancy Shawl dancer (First Nations of the Prairie)

The various groups dancing together after they were introduced

Everyone dancing together, kinda cool. 

Loved this woman, she reminds me of my Grandma and Aunties. 

As the athlete procession began, the First Nations participants continued to dance throughout–talk about some endurance! 
Notice the beanie of the Canadian flag bearer–it was given to her by the leaders of the four host nations, and has the symbol of the four tribes. 

After the parade of Nations, Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams came out and sang a song called “bang the drum”, and the Native participants danced along. The audience was also given cardboard “drums” with First Nations designs to bang along. Sorry I didn’t get a shot of them. 

during the song they did “spotlight” dance breaks with fancy dancers and hoop dancers. 

So, this is where it gets a little questionable. After the Nelly/Bryan performance, the arena floor was transformed into the “North” and this actor dressed up in roughly “arctic” regalia began trekking across the floor. 

Then he started to bang his staff on the ground and waves of “electricity” started radiating out. 

causing all the people to scatter. It just felt a little stereotyped–mystical Native guy tied to nature brings magic to the “normal” community

oh look, his magic created the constellations in the night sky! 

 After the Arctic, they transformed the stage into the ocean (pretty cool effect, actually) and had Indigenous images of Orca whales.

After the ocean, they moved to the forest, with these large “totem poles” rising up, which then transformed into trees. 

Finally, a shot that I loved–the First Nations leaders sitting with the Canadian government officials. I am fully aware that it was completely symbolic, but I liked it nonetheless. 
Whew, so that’s a quick version of the opening ceremonies. The whole thing is on, in three parts, and can be watched here.
So, what does this all mean? Like I said at the opening, I am very happy that they decided to include the First Nations in the games overall–it’s rare, even in 2010, to see such a strong Native presence in a national event. I liked that they acknowledged the communities indigenous to the Vancouver area, even calling them the “host nations”, which is something we as Native people always make sure to do at events and gatherings–honoring the peoples whose land we stand on. I liked that I could sit and watch real Natives on TV, in traditional regalia, getting down to Nelly Furtado. It made me happy to think that for one night, Natives were in the minds of millions of people, and in a positive light. I felt proud to be Indigenous.
HOWEVER. The extensive involvement of Natives in the games in the ceremonies gives off the impression that Canada has a equal, open, and strong relationship with its First Nations communities. Most outsiders would think that Canada is an indigenous Nation, with its peoples having equal recognition in government (see last screen shot), practicing their sovereignty, etc–when this is not the case. At all. Canada, like the US, has not signed on the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (oops) , Natives peoples in Canada continue to be the most impoverished communities with highest levels of unemployment (also like the US). 
I admit that I am not as knowledgeable about Canadian Indigenous issues as I would like, but the bottom line is that the olympics are giving off the impression of an equal, happy relationship between the Canadian and First Nations; when in reality, First Nations communities still live in a colonial state, with constant affronts to their sovereignty and autonomy as Nations. 
In the next couple of days I’m going to pull together some great articles, op-eds, and blog posts about these issues. Stay tuned. 
If anyone more versed in Canadian issues wants to write a post on all of this, please let me know!
(Thanks to Michael, Jenny, and all my texting friends!)
  • I was watching from a bar in the Mission wondering what Adri would have to say about all this. Good run-down and thanks for the screenshots. Btw, it’s the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s how we get that lovely acronym UN-DRIP. I’ve been reading it this week, and it’s really amazing that the US (and others) won’t sign on.

  • fixed it, thanks!! :)

  • you are awesome. and in case you haven’t guessed, this is MK.

  • haha, it took a little detective work, but I figured it out.

  • Bravo! I really enjoyed this balanced discussion about the opening ceremony. I know from friends that Native participation in the event was divided. So I was poised to watch/critique the ceremony as well. I agree with your post for the most part, however I would like to add that I thought the Nelly/Bryan performance was way too cheesy, and undoubtedly added to the facade of “all things are happy-go-lucky with First Nations.” I think it’s important to celebrate Indianness, but I personally felt really awkward during this segment. But once again, thank you for the post, I’m sure many people have varying thoughts on the event.

  • Adrienne, you are so awesome! Good work. I’m sure you read my tweets about the opening “ceremony.” :)

  • Anonymous

    Toban Black wrote a great post on this for us at Sociological Images:

  • I’m glad you posted this :) I had many similar feelings about the event- both good and bad. I agree with Jessica about the Nelly/Bryan part, though. It made me feel really uncomfortable. As for how Aboriginal peoples in Canada are treated, I agree there too… I can think of more than a few ongoing governmental policy/funding issues that I find totally disrespectful and hurt my heart.

  • I was honoured to be able to perform as part of the welcome. I would like to state that there were many of us out there would fight for our right, and we didn’t forget that Canada still as a long long way to go as far as aboriginal rights go, at the same time I though of how far we have come, its important to remember that i well with in living memory when our people were jailed for dancing or singing our songs. For me coming for a community that had lost is songs being out there singing our songs and dancing was epic and truly made me cry with joy. It reminded the world that we are not a lost culture or a “dead” people we a live and proud part of Canada culture. Senting that message to me was important and was the true power of the event.

  • PS the Welcome poles were based on welcome by of the Salish nations the raising of the arms indicated that visitors were welcome. Just FYI

  • I know this is way late in the game, but… Better late than never?

    The approximately 300 dancers featured at the Olympics opening ceremony were part of an event hosted by the Olympics called the Indigenous Youth Gathering (IYG). I received the Call for Participation by e-mail and upon reading it found that it *reeked* of tokenism; only those youth who own and are willing to wear regalia need apply.

    A few friends of mine attended the IYG. It was an approx. 2 week gathering (if my memory serves). While they recounted good experiences and I would not want to take away from what they described as an empowering gathering that drew connections between youth from across Canada, I was astounded to learn that this youth gathering included working out for hours a day (yes, in a gym, with instructors) and practicing for opening routine.

    Just a glimpse at some of the behind-the-scenes action up here in the “Great White North.”