The day of the opening ceremonies to the 2010 Olympics, I painted a big and bold sign that said, “5 Rings Shackle Us to Debt” and headed downtown to join the ‘welcoming’ 2010 protest march, along with many aboriginal activists from the Resist 2010 movement, and other anti-Olympics demonstrators. It was a fun, peaceful, and lively march. After the protest, I went home to watch the opening ceremonies. And I was very impressed by what I saw. The Four Host Nations were given ample air time, protocol was respected as they welcomed the world to their territories in their traditional languages, and they made the opening ceremonies worth watching. I got choked up for the first time hearing representatives from the Four Host Nations speak, seeing the giant totem poles rise from the ground of the stadium, and watching aboriginal people from across the nation join the welcoming ceremony in a spectacular powwow dance. I thought, ok, maybe this Olympics might have something to offer the world besides competitive medal counts, flag-waving, and frenetic, drunk hockey fans whooping it up in the streets.

Not one to waste money, I put my protest sign aside and was determined to make the most of my hard-earned taxpayer dollars. I decided to spend all my time not glued to the TV, but rather, learning about First Nations’ culture and interacting with aboriginals at the various sites downtown that showcased aboriginal culture from across Canada.

Here are some of the highlights of my ‘Olympic experience’. At the Pan Pacific Hotel, I saw Tsimshian artist and carver Bill Helin’s impressive “Raven Song” 40-foot cedar war canoe that was carried up the escalator three flights by many strong hands, to be showcased at the Kla-how-ya village. Sitting by the canoe, I observed Paula Cranmer-Underhill weave cedar bark into bracelets and other artifacts. Paula also taught me how to pronounce N’laka’pamux correctly, as she learned it from an elder in her community. I watched Tony Paul of the Sechelt Band carve a totem pole, while I discussed the issue of authenticity in aboriginal art with his wife.

At the artisan village at Vancouver Community College, I learned from Lisa Shepherd (Manitoba M├ętis) how she obtains porcupine quills giving due respect to the roadkill she plucks the quills from, and how she cleans them properly to make beautiful earrings. Lisa is a multi-skilled artisan who also sews mocassins by hand, and we discussed our penchant for including a bit sparkle and a lot of colour to the beaded native chokers we both enjoy making. I learned from Walter Davidson (Haida) how silver jewlery is carved in a traditional way, using hand-powered tools and engraving over the lines multiple times to achieve depth in the images and high quality and value to each jewlery piece he creates. Walter also generously invited me and my friend to join him in the lounge upstairs where aboriginal food and drink were served (and where we spotted the well-known aboriginal actor Tantoo Cardinal!) to enjoy a glass of award-winning Nk’Mip wine (Okanagan), great conversation, and the men’s hockey game.

The aboriginal showcases were the only Olympic activities I attended, and for these (as well as the Four Host Nations’ welcome performance at the opening ceremonies), this formerly jaded, anti-Olympics protester is a convert. The Olympics – well, specifically, the Cultural Olympiad – was a great experience for me. I spent countless hours and days having so many interesting conversations with aboriginal artists, writers, poets, publishers, entrepreneurs, tourism operators, elders, musicians, singers, drummers, dancers, jewelry makers, carvers, drum-makers, activists, volunteers, and aboriginal people of all ages. I asked a lot of questions to all the people I spoke with, learned so much, expressed my gratitude, and deepened my knowledge of, and passion and respect for aboriginal culture.

My poet friend, Chris Bose (N’laka’pamux), commented that this Olympics is “like one really big pow-wow.” That summed it up for me, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of it all.

– Niki Westman, Finance Administrator