In the predawn hours of 6 March 2007, three masked men crept across the lawn of Vancouver City Council and crouched beneath the Olympic flagpole. Five rings waved above them as they pried open the access panel and cut the cable inside. The flag plummeted to the ground and was quickly bundled off, only glimpsed again in a photo sent to media the following day. The culprits posed beside their prize like al Qaeda with a hostage. “No Olympics on stolen Native land!” read the accompanying press release, signed by a group calling themselves the Native Warrior Society.
It was a chastening moment for organisers of the 21st Winter Olympiad, which begins on 12 February. They prefer the media to focus on the cooperation they’ve secured from this country’s indigenous population. Known officially as First Nations in the Canadian lexicon - and, unofficially, as ‘natives,’ ‘Indians,’ ‘aboriginals,’ and a host of less flattering epithets - there are over 60 tribes in the Pacific coast province of British Columbia, societies whose presence here predates the European arrival by several thousand years. Four of them - Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh - lay claim to the land between Vancouver and the ski resort Whistler, where many Winter Olympic events are taking place. Yet those same tribes signed an agreement with the Vancouver Olympic Committee that makes them official ‘“co-hosts’” of the Games under the ‘“Four Host First Nations’” banner. The games even features the mascot Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq. Ilanaaq is the native word for friend.
The Four Host bills the Olympics as “the biggest potlatch the world has ever seen,” in reference to a traditional gift-giving ceremony among native chiefs. Canadian law banned potlatches until 1951 as part of an effort to assimilate aboriginals into mainstream Canadian society; the fact that these will be the first Olympics in history to recognize aboriginal authority is, to the Four Host, a sign of cultural resurgence and growing political strength. But as the flag-stealing episode revealed, many among their communities feel differently.