CUIABã, Brazil: Leaving a cloud of dust in his wake, a burly warrior of a man rushes into view carrying a huge log on his shoulder.
His face painted and grimacing with the effort, he heaves it on to a teammate and keeps running as if his life depended on it as he chases a victory for his tribe in Brazil’s Indigenous Games.
Just as at any other major sports event, partisan fans look on anxiously, shaking their maracas furiously and belting out ancestral songs to cheer on their contestants.
Tawra and fellow members of his Kariri Xoco tribe dance around their colleague Tanawi to celebrate his participation in the bow and arrow—small matter that he lost.
Tanawi himself stands in the middle almost in a state of lethargy while his supporters dance. They explain they want to give him strength and deepen the bond they have with their man.
Such demonstrative and enthusiastic shows of support were a regular feature of the 12th International Games of Indigenous peoples which came to a close on Saturday in the central city of Cuiaba.
Some 1500 athletes representing 49 indigenous Brazilian tribes and representatives from another 17 nations attended the jamboree as a colorful preview for the other Games Brazil will host in just under 1000 days— the Rio Olympics.
The event also offered a foretaste for the first World Indigenous Games which Brazil will also host next year.
As well as showing themselves dab hands with the bow and arrow, contestants also showed their prowess in a range of traditional disciplines such as throwing the lance and the “tree trunk race,” a relay race involving the carrying of wooden cylindrical logs weighing more than 100 kilos.
Tawra, 24, had a similar odyssey just to get to the start line, taking three days to arrive by bus from Alagoas in the north-east, while Zuri Duarte, a 21-year-old from the Harakmbut tribe came from Peru.
Both were first-timers at the event and were happy to grasp a rare chance to indulge in some cultural interchange with contestants from fellow ancient indigenous cultures.
That was certainly the case with Iguandili López, who came from Panama to show off the dance of the Guna with his Pataxó tribe— their bodies painted bright yellow.
Keyuk Yanten of the Pata¬gonian tribe Tewelche was also there with Mapuche Indians from southern Chile.
“It is fascinating how the Brazilian tribes retain this purity,” marveled Iguandili.
There are some 900,000 Indians in Brazil—less than 0.5 percent of the total population of 200 million. Tawrá is the son of a “white” woman and an indigenous father, though he insists: “I feel I am indian.”
His tribe is one of the many which are demanding recognition of ancestral land rights and protesting about the encroachment of farming colonies.
The Parecí, the host tribe at the Games who hail from the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, whose capital is Cuiabá, play a ball game exclusively with their heads.
Up against the Enawené-Nawé tribe, the Parecí launched themselves into the contest as they fought for possession of the handmade ball.
Head football was a demonstration sport at the Games, and any mention of football had all the tribes chasing around the pitch with the passion one might expect from any Brazilian given the country’s five World Cup triumphs.
The Brazilian government is mulling holding an Indigenous World Cup next May, just a month before the FIFA-sanctioned “real thing” in 12 Brazilian cities, Cuiaba included.
Tawra’s female colleagues had to resort to penalties but won their match with the Harákmbut tribe.
The matches were played on a baking hot pitch but in good spirits, the only tears coming from a little girl who was left abandoned on the touchline as her mother went to play.