The first-ever World Indigenous Games kicked off on Thursday with a spectacular fire ritual; tribal representatives from Ethiopia to Mongolia, Australia, the Philippines, Paraguay, and Guatemala, gathered in the Brazilian town of Palmas – a remote outpost in the country’s center – to get the festivities started.

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Photo courtesy of the AP

For Elvis Balabal Julis of the Philippines’ Igorot people, the competition marks his very first time outside of his native country. “I never thought I would see so many indigenous peoples together. We’re very similar and very different at the same time,” he said.

Twenty-four different tribes from Brazil alone will participate in the games, with around 1,800 athletes total hailing from 23 countries. Events include archery, spear throwing, canoeing, racing through the forest, and wrestling, as well as non-competitive games like xikunahity, or soccer head. Legend has it that this game, which is played on all fours, came about when some mythical entity praised the head’s capacity for developing intelligence, achieving mental and spiritual wholeness, and helping with physical abilities.

Perhaps most impressively, this event is a low-budget alternative – or rather, on the polar opposite side of the budget spectrum – to the World Cup that Brazil held last year, and the Olympics that it plans to host next summer. Many of the structures that were built to house athletes and put the whole thing together are comprised of sustainable materials, and tree saplings are being planted in an effort to replace timber that was used for canoes and other necessities. Who would have envisioned a competition like this taking place in our insane 21st-century sports world?

It hasn’t all been union and togetherness; the opening day ritual was juxtaposed by protests that took place earlier that day, when a small group of Brazilian indigenous people denounced what they felt to be unnecessary spending and poor organization. A reported $14 million will be spent on the competition, money that protestors feel could be better spent improving the conditions of Brazil’s impoverished indigenous populations.

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Photo courtesy of the AP

Narube Werreria, a government employee from the Karaja tribe with land near Palmas, said that “the government is using the event to cover our eyes and say everything is alright here,” but from her perspective, things are most certainly not alright; Brazil’s indigenous communities include over 900,000 people, and while their reserves total 10 percent of the country’s land, their lack of resources – waterways, forest, minerals – make them some of the country’s poorest.

Will this sporting event actually benefit the indigenous groups it purports to serve, or is this yet another cultural tourism endeavor, the funds of which could be allocated for much more useful and beneficial pursuits? Check out this video from Visit Brazil and decide for yourself.

Photo courtesy of the AP