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Indian Presence at Games Falls Short

Olympics: Despite efforts to showcase tribes from across the country, only five from Utah will participate.


SALT LAKE CITY — Larry Blackhair has spent three years encouraging more than 250 Indian tribes across the country to showcase their culture and commerce at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

But when the world tunes into the Games next week, only the five tribes of Utah will be participating.

Blackhair said no other tribes expressed interest in the Olympics. Some tribal leaders, however, said they were interested but never received effective guidance on how to participate.

Others said they felt no compelling reason to show a Native American presence at the Olympics.

"I'm excited for the tribes that are involved, because this will be the world's largest billboard," said Blackhair, a member of a local Ute Indian tribe, for which this state is named. "I don't want to give this a negative spin. It hasn't worked out as we thought it would, but I'm still excited."

The Native American communities' fractured efforts to better capitalize on a global television audience reflect historical difficulties coordinating the nation's tribes. As sovereign nations, the tribes seldom work together--and frequently compete--except on matters of overriding importance involving federal policies, such as Indian casinos, reservation trusts and social services.

Expectations for Native American involvement were high, given the emotional impact when aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman lighted the Olympic caldron at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. (In these Winter Games, one U.S. athlete is a Native American: Naomi Lang, a four-time U.S. champion ice dancer and a member of the Karuk tribe near Sacramento.)

Olympic organizing officials say no other U.S.-hosted Games have sought the tribes' involvement to such a degree. Despite intentions, however, their presence will be minimal.

It will start Monday, when the Olympic torch crosses into Utah and into the hands of five Native Americans, including Blackhair. The tribes also will be represented during the opening ceremony's cast of thousands.

The most prominent Native American display during the 17-day Olympic run will come from the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the U.S. with 250,000 members and whose reservation spreads into Utah. Though the Navajo Nation contributed financially to the joint Indian effort, it plans to showcase its art, culture and economic opportunities inside its own $1.5-million pavilion, constructed alongside a new outdoor shopping mall downtown.

"We want to generate new dollars on our reservation, and this is a tourism-related event in our backyard," said Roberta John, spokesperson for the tribe. "We want the world--and corporate America--to see us."

Utah's other four tribes, meanwhile, will share a 55-foot-tall tepee that is being constructed near Olympic skiing events outside Park City. On Tuesday, large steel girders leaned skyward against one another, awaiting their canvas draping.

Of about $70,000 that Blackhair raised, $25,000 was spent on the tepee. It's unclear how much money will be left over to fill its interior with displays and entertainment, said Blackhair, who will retain about 10% of the total funds as his fund-raising fee.

Efforts to coordinate Indian involvement in the Games stumbled despite an early start in 1998, when Blackhair began his work at the request of Utah Tribal Leaders, which represents the state's tribal councils.

Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, contacted Olympic organizers on behalf of the tribes. "We had to knock on the door a few times, just to call their attention to the need to involve us, but once we got through, they were quick to open up to us," he said.

Ed Eynon, senior vice president for international relations for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, said the Indians' participation would add a "Western flavor" to the Games and help the tribes counter stereotypes.

"Their culture is part of the tapestry of the area," said Don Mischer, producer of the Games' opening ceremonies. "It's important they be represented in the ceremonies, as an element of the American West."

While Olympic organizers were happy to highlight the Indian culture, Blackhair was left to organize the effort. He established the Native American 2002 Foundation and said he sent out letters and e-mails to the nation's tribes to seek participation. But the one-man effort quickly fell apart because of disorganization or lack of interest.

Among his single largest contributions was $15,000 from the Shoshone-Bannock Indians in Idaho. Tribal leaders said they were told by Blackhair that the donation would buy them the designation of "host tribe" for the Olympics. When informed that they instead would simply be the host tribe for the foundation, they withdrew their participation.

California tribes are absent too, even though Blackhair said he specifically sought their involvement because of their wealth accrued from casinos.

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