Posted: Oct 20, 12:15p ET | Updated: Nov 5, 5:26p ET

Indigenous groups provide historic help

Native influence to echo throughout the Games

February 2006 saw what may have been the only First Nations witness ceremony ever held in the Italian Alps. The occasion? The Closing Ceremonies of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Native wood head carving, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.
Native wood head carving, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.

That day, representatives of four British Columbia First Nations formally invited every member of the audience -- and by extension, the world -- to Vancouver and Whistler in 2010.

Spectacular and moving as it was, this was far more than a ceremonial gesture. The event was, in fact, a landmark in Olympic history, as the groups extending the invitation were the first indigenous people ever to be recognized as partners in hosting the Olympic Games.

Heavy lifting

The Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, known collectively as the Four Host First Nations (FHFN), have lived in the Vancouver and Whistler area for thousands of years. Since 2005, they have been working with the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) to win the Olympic bid, prepare for and ultimately host the Games. As a result, 2010 will see Aboriginal involvement extend to virtually every aspect of the Olympics.

One group that has been quite literally groundbreaking is Squamish Nation-owned Newhaven Construction. They have won a number of Games venue contracts, including clearing the site and building some of the infrastructure at the Whistler Olympic Nordic Venue. Also at the Nordic Venue, Newhaven has constructed the NordicDay Lodge and a number of other support buildings.

A place for culture

Newhaven's highest-profile project, though, is the construction of the stunning new Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler Village. The Centre, scheduled for completion in the spring of 2008, will be one of the most visible - and permanent - legacies of First Nations Olympic involvement. Designed to reflect both a Squamish traditional Longhouse and a Lil'wat traditional Istken (earthen pithouse dwelling), the Centre will showcase the rich heritage and cultures past, present, and future of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations. It will be a resource for local residents and an attraction for visitors during the Olympics and for many years to come.

Indigenous athletes

Another investment with far-reaching benefits is a series of sports initiatives aimed at Aboriginal youth in Canada.

The First Nations Snowboard Team, for example, has two goals: to see an Aboriginal athlete win an Olympic medal in snowboarding, and to introduce Aboriginal kids to the joys of sports.

Aaron Marchant, a member of the Squamish Nation, founded the team in 2004 with support from the 2010 Games and local ski resorts. He's already seen it grow from the 10 original Squamish and Lil'wat members to 116 young people across the province. The team - which has both recreational and high performance streams -- won several medals at the 2005 BC Snowboard Association competitions. Twelve team members have become certified snowboard instructors and two -- Chelsie Mitchell and Jonathan Redman -- have gone on to become the first two Aboriginal members of the British Columbia Snowboard Team.

Two more Aboriginal athletes to watch are Aqpik Peter, an Inuit speed skater from Nunavut, and 16-year-old Mareck Beaudoin from Quebec. Already a top-ranked biathlete, this young Métis woman is aiming for the 2014 Olympic Team.

An artistic glimpse

While Aboriginal athletes train for the podium, artists and performers are preparing for the Olympic stage.

Culture is a key component of any Olympic Games, and Aboriginal visual and performing artists have been, and will be, central to virtually every Olympic event from the closing ce--onies at Torino to the closing ce--onies in Vancouver.

Events will start in earnest with the launch of the Vancouver and Whistler Cultural Olympiad in 2008. A key part of hosting the Olympics, this two year event will showcase the best of contemporary, classical and Aboriginal arts, as well as works of artists and performers from other IOC nations. It will culminate in the Olympic Arts Festival, a five-week-long programme leading up to and continuing through the Games. Although the events are still in the planning stages, Aboriginal artists and performers from across Canada are certain to figure prominently.

Olympic mascots

Even the Games' mascots, Miga, Quatchi and Sumi, were inspired by local First Nation mythology. Quatchi, for example, is a Sasquatch -- a mysterious man of the forest that appears in a number of West Coast legends. Miga, a sea bear, was inspired by tales of Orcas that transform into bears when they arrive on land, while Sumi, whose name is derived from a Salish word meaning "guardian spirit", reflects the theme of transformation that permeates much of First Nations mythology. And, of course, the Games' now familiar emblem is based on an inukshuk -- a stone sculpture traditionally used by the Inuit as directional landmarks.

Like an inukshuk, most of the First Nations-Olympics joint projects have been built to last. Post-Games, the Olympic legacy of youth programmes and economic opportunities are expected to provide benefits to local First Nations, to Aboriginal people across Canada, and to Canadian society at large, for many years to come.

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