On the Olympics & Being Indigenous

I’m not going to lie. I’m not a big fan of the Olympics and in fact every four years I think I hate them more, for all of the obvious reasons. Vancouver 2012 I disliked the most because when watching the opening ceremonies with my then eight year old insomniac, in what must have been the middle of the night, he looked at me and said “When is Team Anishinaabeg going to be entering the stadium? Probably before Team Haudenosaunee, right, because Anishinaabeg begins with A?” As all Native parents know, the colonialism talk makes the sex talk look a lot like a platter of cupcakes with a chaser of ice cream cones.

This year, I’ve been lucky and I’ve mostly been able to ignore the whole conspicuous spectacle, except that during the opening ceremonies I had to unfollow Billy Bragg on Twitter because he was so enamored with Danny Boyle’s lefty take on the ceremony, that he failed to notice Boyle skipping over the four hundred years of colonialism, genocide and occupation England’s heaped on Indigenous nations globally. And yes, this year my entire Olympic experience is mitigated through my Twitter feed which is made up almost exclusively of Indigenous artists, academics and writers. Which means in addition to the Billy Bragg incident, the only Olympic related news I’ve heard is confined to the two racist athletes expelled from the games, the four Indigenous athletes from North America including Anishinaabekwe Mary Spence and today, Damien Hooper.

Damien Hooper was colonized by jolly old England via Australia, so he is at the Olympics representing Australia, and in his words “I am not just representing my country but my people as well”. His crime? He wore a shirt with an “Aboriginal flag” on it after his boxing match today.

The flag in question was designed by artist Harold Thomson and it was originally a symbol of the Indigenous land rights movement in Australia. In 1995, the Australian government made it legally and politically one of the “Flags of Australia”.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states: “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas”, meaning Hooper has been told he cannot wear his shirt again and he must apology to Chef de Mission for the Australian team.

Here is the part that I need to say out loud even though it’s neither new or profound: every aspect of the Olympics is political – who is there, who is not there, where they are held, where they are not held, the sports that are involved, the sports that are not involved, the sports women are allowed to compete in and those we are not, the basic human rights of transgender athletes, whose history is told and celebrated and whose is silenced, the privileging of the competition of able bodied athletes and the fact that the social costs of the games fall squarely on the backs of the economically poor.

The Olympics are political and they reflect the politics of the both the ruling nation-states of the world and corporations. You can wear a shirt with Canada on it. You can wear shoes with Adidas on them. That’s fine, because it’s “not political”. Unless of course you’re Indigenous and these corporations and nation states are causing never-ending harm, destruction and trauma to your land and your people.

The idea that there is no place for political protest at the Olympics is also a wild sanitization of the games given that there has been dissent and protest at the games as long as the modern games have been held. Remember in 2000 when Cathy Freeman, who is also Indigenous and from the Australian team, carried the same “Aboriginal flag” around the track in her victory lap?

Hooper says he is very proud of what he did, and he should be proud. He showed Indigenous Peoples all over the world that he gets it – that settler states occupy our lands, they ignore our traditional governments, they try and beat us down, but they cannot take away our pride in being Indigenous. He showed us he remembered his family, his community, and his nation, above all else. He took a risk in the biggest sporting event of his life to tell those Old Ones that he remembered. To tell me, he remembered.

The only person in this non-fiasco fiasco that is owed an apology is Damien Hooper. To compete in the Olympics you shouldn’t have to deny your nationality, you shouldn’t have to erase your Indigeneity, and you should never be threatened or made to apologize for being who you are.

I think the Olympics and I are probably done for 2012 but I’ll tell you that I am looking very forward to the day the Iroquois Nationals use their passports to travel to the Olympics to kick everyone’s lacrosse ass, and I mean both the men’s team and the women’s team. And I’m also looking very forward to the day when Team Anishinaabeg enters the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies.