As hosts of the Vancouver Olympics, First Nations are ready to welcome the world

By Remy Scalza
Sunday, November 1, 2009

It's an Olympic first that has drawn few headlines. When the 2010 Winter Games open in Vancouver, B.C., in February, four Canadian Indian nations will be on hand -- not as window dressing but as full-fledged hosts. "This isn't just get out the drums and feathers for the Opening Ceremonies," says Alex Rose, communications director for the Four Host First Nations, the society representing the four groups of Canada's indigenous people who will host the Games. "Those days are gone."

Largely gone, too, are the tepees, totem poles and tchotchkes that once defined aboriginal tourism in Canada. In their place has sprung up a new generation of indigenous travel experiences -- from urban powwows to luxe native-owned wineries -- aimed at courting the more than 250,000 visitors expected at the Games.

And though some offerings still play on familiar riffs, the best of the bunch offer a candid glimpse into a culture, and a tourism industry, seeking to redefine itself. "It's our time to be part of major things that are happening," says Tewanee Joseph, a member of the Vancouver-based Squamish Nation and chief executive of the aboriginal groups hosting the Games. "I call it our transition time."

Around Vancouver, one of the most visible expressions of this transformation has been the resurgence of a long-banned ceremony: the powwow. Outlawed by Canadian officials until 1951 and later confined to isolated reservations, powwows have experienced a renaissance in recent years, with events in large cities sometimes drawing nearly 100,000 dancers and spectators.

Technically a ceremonial dance competition with troupes of performers in elaborate regalia competing for prizes, the powwow is also a block party and a family reunion, with a bit of a Deadhead tailgating vibe thrown in. "Once you start, it becomes a big part of your life," says Kathy James, who traces her roots to Canada's Cree, Blackfoot and Anishinaabe Indians. "You start to feel more alive."

James and I are at an urban powwow on the Squamish Nation reservation, a grassy piece of prize real estate hemmed in by high-rises that's just minutes from downtown Vancouver. James is, in her own words, a powwow junkie. "There's literally one almost every weekend during the summer," she says.

This weekend-long powwow outside Vancouver is one of the year's biggest, drawing thousands of performers and spectators from all over the United States and Canada. "On Monday, we all say we get powwow hangover" from all the dancing, James says.

While competitors line up around a grassy circle and the day's crowd filters in, Squamish Nation member Wilfred Baker tends a bonfire at the edge of the gathering. Splayed down the middle and set up on stakes around the fire are at least a dozen wild sockeye salmon, shimmering orange in the midday sun.

"I learned to barbecue from my uncle, [and] he learned at the first powwows back in the '60s," Baker says. "I'm hoping to do something at the Olympics."

He has a line of customers for his $7 salmon dinners by the time the drumming starts. Performers -- some in traditional dress, others in neon orange and pink ensembles that wouldn't be out of place at Brazilian Carnival -- pour in until the field is filled with color and feathers, all pulsing counterclockwise.

During a lull in the music, James tells me that she doesn't fully support the First Nations' involvement in the Olympics. "It's a small concession by the government to keep aboriginal people quiet," she says. But the Olympic spotlight has brought benefits. "To the media," says James, "we're the drunks on the street. If we don't let people come here and learn, how do we get rid of those images?"

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