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An Indigenous Olympics?

By Guest Contributor Toban Black, originally published at Contexts.org

The 2010 Olympics logo is an altered version of traditional Arctic Inuit sculptures. This quasi-indigenous logo has been displayed in a barrage of Olympics branding. You can see two examples of this marketing in photos — from the summer of 2009 – shown below.

With this Olympics logo, and other Olympics promotional messages, marketers have been portraying the 2010 Games as ‘indigenous’ Olympics. Indigenous references are foregrounded in mass produced Olympics marketing.  The online Olympics store even sells “Authentic Aboriginal Products” (such as t-shirts and silk ties).

Some people who encounter this Olympics branding are bound to come away with the impression that natives (that is, individuals with a significant enough amount of native ancestry or culture) are respected, empowered, and well-integrated here in Canada. In other words, some viewers will view this marketing as a sign of harmonious bonds between natives and mainstream Canadian society.

Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, conveyed a much different view of Olympics marketing when he asserted that,

We’re deeply concerned about the concerted and aggressive marketing campaign advanced by Vanoc [the 2010 Olympics organization committee] which suggests the indigenous people of [British Columbia] and Canada enjoy a very comfortable and high standard of living. The Disneyesque promotional materials suggests a cosy relationship between aboriginal people of the province with all levels of government and it completely ignores the horrific levels of poverty our people endure on a daily basis.

(Arctic indigenous branding on a McDonald’s cup in a
Wal-Mart store, in a city in Ontario, Canada)

In British Columbia, and elsewhere in present-day Canada, natives have communicated conflicting views about how the 2010 Olympics relate to their lives, lands, and traditions. Indigenous Environmental Network campaigners have been among the more vocal critics who have opposed the 2010 Games.

Some have found the cartoonish Olympic marketing imagery to be a mockery of native traditions.  For example, critics have argued that the 2010 Olympics committee has edited and re-packaged native culture — which also has been ripped out of its traditional contexts. The Committee is highlighting Arctic indigenous imagery — yet Vancouver, the centre of the Games, is a temperate city.  Arctic indigenous peoples did not live there — or on the nearby Whistler and Cypress mountains, where some Olympic events will be held. Other indigenous populations who did live in that area of British Columbia also are not represented in the marketing iconography.

The Olympics branding denies noteworthy differences among native groups spread across these areas. Passing theatrical gestures to native peoples during the open ceremonies could be considered to be more respectful, but Olympics marketers otherwise have been mixing up North American native traditions into a soup-like caricature. Natives have been consistently oppressed, but the various peoples who are considered to be native (in some way, or to some degree) certainly are not ‘all the same.’ Tacking Arctic imagery on to Vancouver-area Games implies that there is only one native essence (in North America, if not beyond this continent).

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