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Sellout of First Nations culture for the Olympics

Just recently, I came across an interesting work conducted by two UBC students. They concluded that a certain city image…

By Doerthe Keilholz , in Blogs Olympics 2010 , on January 22, 2008

Just recently, I came across an interesting work conducted by two UBC students. They concluded that a certain city image of Vancouver was constructed for Vancouver’s Olympic bid, that has little to do with the city de facto.

According to the students’ work, First Nations and their culture played a leading role within the “marketable product” named Vancouver, especially in “Our Home”, a video that was a crucial part of Vancouver’s application, and was displayed at the IOC final bid presentation in Prague.

First Nations or visible minorities are shown eleven times in the footage, more than any other population group. Totem poles and Native Art appear three times. The video finally culminates with Squamish Chief Gibby Jacob welcoming the Olympics to Vancouver and Whistler in his native tongue.

Few people have ever seen the video. Disney owns the rights to the Bryan Adams song “Here I am” used as background music, and the legal right to show the video expired shortly after the IOC decision in July 2003.

Many however have seen the logo for the 2010 Olympics. If anybody wondered why it looks like “Gumby with goalie pads”, there is a deeper meaning. It is based on an Inuit symbol known as the “Inukshuk”.

Last time I encountered the logo was yesterday at a supermarket. It shed its colored radiance from a sweater worn by a little boy. I’ve seen this boy before. Like me, he and his parents often buy their groceries here. Maybe next time I meet him, he has a little Olympic mascot cuddly toy under his arm. Mascot plushies can be purchased at the Vanoc Olympic Online store under the category “Top Sellers” for a give-away price of $25 to $40. Did I mention that the three mascots – Miga, Quatchi and Sumi – are based on First Nation mythological characters?

I realized yesterday, that the students’ analysis, as well as my encounter with the 2010 Olympics merchandise business somehow connected four words in my head: Vanoc -Olympics – First Nations – profit.

I suddenly felt reminded of advertising motives certain industries once loved to use: The awe-inspiring face of an American Native Chief decorated with a feathered headdress on a tobacco packet, a sparsely dressed black woman either on a coffee tin or a chocolate bar. It’s the old concept of making profit out of the “exotic image” of a certain ethnic group which is all the worse if this group has already faced a long history of exploitation.

I am aware that this is a harsh comparison. The First Nations are actively involved in the Olympics. For instance, Chief Jacob is member of the Vanoc Board of Directors, and Vanoc has begun sponsoring many Native events and seminars, even though First Nations are divided over the question if those benefits will outweigh the negative impacts on Vancouver’s aboriginal population.

But yet, I just can’t help it. When I think about the Olympics and how they are advertised, there is a faint scent of tobacco in the air and the taste of chocolate on my tongue.