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At the Native People's Games 2/24/06

Boris Baldan and the Olympic Torch and Roots Flame.
Opening stadium crowd.

Barron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, had as his vision the celebration of the whole person, the mind, spirit and body, and the coming together of people in fellowship through sport and the sharing of their cultural traditions. While many point to the rampant commercialization, economic motivations and nationalistic jingoism that has overwhelmed the Olympics burying most of his vision in the process, it was highly present to a degree that would possibly have exceeded the Barron's wildest dreams at the First International Baikal Aborigines' Games "Roots" 2006 held in the Tunkinsky ostrog and healing resort Arshan during the Buryat national holiday of Sagaalgan, and coincidentally, at the same time as the Turin Winter Olympiad.

Like the ancient Greeks, where poetry was counted as an equal contest and scored towards identifying the overall champion and championship team, so too presentations of traditional arts in music, dance and decorative arts were judged and awarded prizes equal to bouts in wrestling, archery and animal tracking, amongst others, and counted to a team's total score. Further, all athletic teams were required to have veteran contestants and the cultural teams included presenters that appeared to be age eight years old on up. Practically nobody was too old or too young to compete, indeed such an age spread was a requirement. Gender fairness was not equal. Wrestling and Bone Throwing (actually deer knee bone snapping) were for men only. I didn't see women in the Deer Roping contest, though I suspect more for lack of interest than any prohibition, and I can't say about the Animal Tracking event as I missed it, but I suspect that these traditional hunter-gatherer based sports were male dominated. Women were a highly effective presence on the archery range and in the cultural competitions.

Opening parade of nations, with no one (American Indians) following the American team sign.

The biggest disappointment was the no-show of the two American Indian teams scheduled to appear, representatives of the Navaho and Wacho tribes. The only Indian present, by sheer luck to be in Ulan Ude as a Fulbright Scholar, was Betsy Sweet, an Abanaki, a tribe not even officially recognized by the United States government although is so by Canada. I have to say their non-official status came as a surprise to me as many Abanaki live in the Adirondacks, across the border in Canada, as well as in northern Vermont and New Hampshire. The reason for the lack of the American Indian teams was said to be their inability to get visas in time, although if you asked most any participant or spectator, rampant disorganization would be voiced as the cause.

"Many believe that American Indians can trace their ancestry to here," said Nima Namzhilovich Bazarov, president of the Veteran's Committee and leader of the Okynsky sports delegation. "Thus their being part of this was important. It would be the first time these people competed in their home land - the first time people of this shared ancestry came together in sports, arts and explorations of our common roots. The concept was very exciting. Thus the Navahos and Wachos not being here is a big disappointment."

As Bazarov said, many Buryats, and others of Mongolian heritage, feel that American Indians trace their ancestry to this part of the world; that their forefathers ten thousand years ago migrated from this region across the then Bering Strait land bridge between the eastern tip of Siberia to Alaska and down into the Americas, a concept shocking to Betsy. When I told her that their belief of having shared roots with American Indians was widely held and a major factor in both organizing the games and the huge palpable disappointment at their lack of attendance, she was plainly stunned. "I've never heard this view expressed," she said. "Indians don't believe in the migration theory. We have our own Creation beliefs and it doesn't include migrating across the Bering Strait. It's one reason Indians refuse to participate in DNA testing, which was invented by some white person trying to control who we are and where we come from. We do have many values, beliefs and spirits in common with the people of Mongolian heritage. In that sense, we are one people, but we do not share the same blood and heritage. We are not the same people."

Shauman ceremony.
Sacrificed sheep being burnt.

While for many spectators, participants, members of the media and even the organizing committee, the daily, nay hourly, athletic achievement was learning what event was being held where when as delays and shifts in scheduling were rampant, and local transportation near non existent, resulting in some remarkable sprints between the end of one event and the beginning of another, critical for athletes like Alexei Syrenov (54), who was entered in three events, and one of his sons in two. The overall spirit and intentions of Roots to bring together indigenous people, provide a forum for hosting traditional sporting events at one place and time, and stimulate awareness of and presentations in the traditional cultural arts was a great success and a remarkable achievement that all could take justifiable pride. The opening included two side by side spiritual rituals, held at an ancient site sacred to shamans and Buddhists, with one featuring a collaboration between local and Mongolian shamans that resulted in a frenzied trance where several threw themselves face first on burning logs, a frenzy that soon caught up many present and had milk and vodka sprayed everywhere and all manner of things tossed into the fire. Adjacent, and no less captivating, was the sheep sacrifice held by the Tunkinsky shaman. His start was slower and more dignified and had moments of humor when more milk was ending up on him than to the four directions. His ceremony ended in the sharing of a mutton soup, blood sausage and a few other items I declined while the sheep's remains burned on the fire, wooly coat and all. Both of these events were considered instructional, invited participation and held under the banner "How to Carry Out the Ritual of Making a Sacrifice to Nature."

Following the spiritual opening, that I suspect ancient Greeks would have found much in common, and a fast two kilometer hike back to the resort for lunch, fortunately downhill, it was a brisk walk one-third of the way back up for the opening ceremonies and parade of nations that featured indigenous peoples from greater Buryatia and Mongolia, with Betsy, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Jennifer Hughes and myself representing the United States. Local writer Boris Baldan won an international essay contest that resulted in his being a torchbearer in Italy (Genoa), in so doing representing all of Russia, and acquiring both an official uniform and Olympic torch. Rather than stay in Turin, he brought his booty home. His torch was ridden into the stadium and around the oval three times on horseback, eventually handed to him where he was given the privilege of lighting the Roots' Torch to the wild cheers of the several thousand in attendance. The setting was dramatic and colorful with its backdrop of the rugged snow capped peaks of the Vostochnie Sayani Mountains, scores of people wearing their national dress and many banners and balloons flying.

Welcome to Tukinsky.

People then dashed from the arena and wedged themselves into the school gym for round one of wrestling; for athletes amongst each other in four categories (weight divisions plus a veterans division of those over 45); and for the rest of us for seats, heating pipes to stand on, and other places to squeeze into. No less a challenge for the athletes was wiggling their way through the crowd to get onto the matt where two pairs were grappling at any given time following "Buryat" rules, a nuanced form of wrestling that the New York Yacht Club would appreciate. After the wrestling we trooped back to the resort where a huge festival of food and crafts was waiting for N.D. Petukhov, the Governor of the Tunkinsky region, Vladimir Prokopyev, the Republic of Buryatia Minister of Culture, various vice governors from Mongolia and other regions, and myself as it turned out, to open the festivities. We went from table to table being welcomed with milk and milk-vodka, and offerings of a wide variety of foods to eat and crafts to purchase. Attendees were eager for us to move along because until the official dignitaries had tasted their milk, vodka, bread and salt, and a few dishes, the food displays could not be made available to the general public for their enjoyment. Since there were two floors of groaning tables, we were being hauled here and there by anxious hands and regional delegates, and offered a wide assortment of everything from pickled mushrooms and sheep's brains to blood sausage and honey cakes all washed down with an assortment of teas, berry juices, milk and milk vodka.

For most the day ended with a packed concert, the first of many that had people shoe-horned in and sitting two or more to a seat, while outside the archers failed to hit many poorly lit "Illuminated" targets in the dark. Their rescheduled event, held two days later in -20 temperatures and a bitter wind, was no less challenging, especially as wearing native dress was a requirement resulting in near frozen competitors. Remarkably, using hand-made traditional bows, they nailed targets with deadly accuracy under conditions and with equipment that would leave Olympic athletes and their space-age compound composite bows in the dust, or snow squall to be more accurate. But my, and my fellow Americans', first night concluded at two A.M. as we were invited to the Governor's dinner following the concert, a marathon of toasts, food and songs where I was asked to give a toast to the spirit of Roots and did my best to rally the spirits of my fading translator Artem, who had been hard at it since seven. The challenge for him was my next official event was a mere six hours hence.

Day Two featured teams competing in the Skiing-Tracking (find within three kilometers and correctly follow a wolf, deer, mountain goat or sable, with the animal's track having been drawn from a hat). Each team was launched down trails at five-minute intervals seeking to discern the correct tracks amongst many bogus trails set by judges coupled with natural tracks left by other forest creatures. The home region Tunkinsky team won this event. The great mystery was how the judges set animal tracks without leaving their own in the snow. In the concert hall, teams giving artistic presentations of their regions' Roots followed the Tracking competition. These performances, using a mix of video, slides, songs, dances and other creative displays, were exciting to watch. The variety was outstanding and one young man gave such a terrific performance that it drew a standing ovation from his competitors. I asked one of the jurists, Lama Norbu Donzen Iyashaev of Orlik, how he could judge fairly; wasn't he vulnerable from being said to favor his home village or treating them unfairly hard. "I leave the decisions to higher powers that guide me," he said. "Plus my views are balanced by those of the others."

Competitor retreiving his rope after successfully roping the deer head.

The afternoon began with Reindeer Roping, of which the winner would receive an invitation and all expenses covered to attend the international deer roping championships held next in Norway. A sport with strong regional techniques, and using ropes of widely varying kinds supplied by the local police department, the event reflected sportsmanship at it highest as those with greater fluency instructed and coached their competitors on how to coil, hold and throw the ropes. Alexei Tsyrenov, an electrician from Orlik (Okynsky Region) said, "During the event we are rivals. But before and after we live together, work together and are friends. So it is natural for us to help each other and share our knowledge before we throw the rope. As an example, in our competitions in Orlik we have a hoop attached to the end of the rope. Here they do not. To help make up for these differences we coach each other. But when my turn comes to throw the rope, I throw to win."

Contestant in breaking (throwing) bones competition. Below: Deer bones to be broken.

The next event was Bone Throwing, or more accurately bone snapping. Competitors are invited to select a dried deer knee joint bone that has been cut off so about ten inches remain. In one hand they hold the bone, after wrapping a thin strip of cotton cloth around the cut end. They bend over holding the bone in one hand and bring their hands together two times (the other hand has been also wrapped in thin cotton) and on the third swing, much like a karate blow, bring their two hands together with as much force, speed and follow through as possible and, if successful, snap the bone in half causing the joint to fly off (be "thrown" usually nailing a member of the audience). One gets a maximum of three swings. Clearly it was painful to fail to break the bone (few could manage more than two failed attempts) and painful to succeed with bloody knuckles and fingers a reward for a successful attempt. Alexei's son Sodnom won breaking five bones in a row (he is also the Orlik wrestling coach and made it, bleeding hand and all, into the semi-final round of wrestling, which immediately followed this event).

"All the people in my family had ability," said Alexei of himself and sons Sodnom and Stanislav, "so we took part. I entered the tracking, wrestling and rope, my older son the wrestling and bone throwing, and the younger wrestling. The main feature of these games is that they brought together so many traditional sporting competitions at one time and so many different athletes."

After all bones had been snapped, athletes and audience raced into the school where I found myself designated as an official judge for the final round of wrestling. My ringside seat meant that when a few enthusiastic bouts ended in the stands, my fellow three judges and I were provided up close and personal inspections of the combatants. As judges, not to be confused with referees, our job was to be the final arbitrators and indeed twice our final say was called upon. First after one competitor had ended in the stands three times, a foul, and been designated the loser. He protested and refused to admit defeat. We judges agreed that his last tumble into the spectators couldn't clearly be sited as his error and ruled the match to continue. This time his tiring opponent tossed him on his back, he agreed it was decisive, and left defeated but head held high. The second time involved by far the largest competitor, a skilled wrestler from Mongolia. He was big, fast, and tended to put away the competition in seconds. He quickly rose through the ranks dispatching all comers on his speedy way to win the heavy weight title. But in the open round, when all finalists no matter the weight category, went in a round robin that had a few ludicrous pairings, he was matched with a fellow barely half his weight whose greatest skill seemed to be back-peddling.

Spirit of the Games winner Alexei Syrenov who participated in three events, had two sons in the competition, one on wrestling and bone breaking (the winner) and the other in wrestling.

After too much time was spent dodging and weaving and the smaller man twice saved by tumbles into the audience, each athlete was given a sash girdle to wear and instructed to grip the other's sash. Clearly this would benefit the larger fellow you think; just stand up and you have the competition off the ground. Not so, the smaller man won the coin toss and given the advantage of gripping the other's sash first requiring the Mongolian to reach over and around his opponent's arms to get a grip. This technique, aka "Buryat" rules, was clearly something quite new for the Mongolian who made two false starts easily plucking his opponent off the ground, but before the ref has blown the whistle to commence. This resulted in much instruction from the referee and obviously growing confusion for the Mongolian as how to do what when. Barely had the Mongolian resettled into position, and the ref blown his whistle a third time, the smaller man exploded upward lifting his massive opponent an inch off the ground. Doing so he won. He benefited by the other not having a clue as to what was going on. The decision was tossed to us, and unfair as it seemed to the Mongolian team and some others present, the score held. Veniamyn Garmayev, from Kurumkan, later beat him taking home the ultimate first prize, a walnut-sized diamond donated by the Yakut region.

That evening featured sportsmanship and other Spirit of the Games awards given out prior the "Official Concert", thank you gifts for various visiting dignitaries, and another three hour celebration by the cultural delegates that had us more than once giving lusty cheers of applause to the Ultch, Evenki, Yakut, Soyot, Khongodor, Mongolian, Buryat and other performers. The evening concluded with a disco, for those of us either young or young at heart, after which I was invited to a birthday dinner at the home of a local resident. Once again Artem and I staggered back to our room at two AM.

Winner of Archery: Yanzhima Oshorova of Orlik.

Up to this point, each day had been bright and sunny, with snow melting off roofs. The morning of Day Three temperatures plunged into the -20s and the final round of Archery was held. While the archers were suffering in the artic winds, the academics were suffering inside as so many had been accepted to give scientific presentations on roots, that as the conference portion of the games continued those presenting later were constantly being asked to edit their remarks from fifteen minutes ultimately down to two. So much for dialogue. To my surprise, I was asked to give a paper, a challenge as I hadn't written one, but luckily placed towards the end I was happy with my shortened time using it to trace my German and Dutch tribes, and a spiritual connection to Buryatia (shared sense of place), poorly stated, that landed me in hot water with the local lamas and insightful discussions post conference. Actually this was my second unplanned conference presentation as there had been a conference held the day before, where I again was asked to make a presentation, which I did sans slides, on the use of the arts in healing and my work in Orlik. Elsewhere cultural elders were giving workshops on the traditional arts that had people in native dress scurrying about from room to room, one moment as instructor and another as student.

The day concluded at three with the closing ceremonies (I again found myself invited to be part of the official delegation on stage passing out ribbons and glitter), awarding of trophies, (the overall championship team represented the Kurumkansky District), and an invitation to Betsy to give concluding remarks, which she did with brevity that had many surprised and I think the audience most thankful for. Rumors of a shortage of vans for the trip home kept us all anxious, but later relieved when we were tucked in and set off at 5:30 for the eight hour trip home.

Okynsky Cultural delegation.
Naj and Okynsky District Cultural delegate Natalia.

"We do plan to try to organize such games again," said Nima Namzhilovich Bazarov, president of the Veteran's Committee, leader of the Okynsky sports delegation (and mayor of two local villages and chef of a wonderful fish soup I enjoyed in Orlik in August post fishing), "but next time it will be hosted by the Soyots. You are invited." Stay tuned.

American Indian - Buryat Link

1998 and 1999 DNA genetic research conducted a group of Russian biologists, including Irene Dambueva, who now works with the Institute of General Experimental Biology of the Buryatia Center of Science, demonstrated a strong link between Buryats and members of the American Navahos and Cherokees, results that have contributed to the strong belief in Buryatia that Indians and Buryats have a shared ancient ancestry. Last summer a group of visiting Cherokees was reported to support the results of the findings, strengthening the belief in a shared roots.


Overall Team Score

First: Kurumkansky Region
Second: Tunkinsky Region
Third: Okinsky Region
Fourth: Bauntovsky Region
Fifth: Zakamensky Region
Sixth: Mongolia
Seventh: Olkhonsky Region

Animal Tracking on Skis, Team Results

First: Tunkinsky Region, Siberian Roe Deer
Second: Kurumkansky Region, Grey Wolf
Third: Bauntovsky Region, Musk Deer
Fourth: Okinsky Region, Musk Deer
Fifth: Mongolia, sable
Sixth: Zakamensky Region, sable

Overall Archery Champion

Oshorov Zhargal, Okinsky Region

Archery: Illuminated, Team Results

First: Tunka Soyots
Second: Tunka Khongodors
Third: Kurumkansky Region

Archery: Women

Oshorova Yanzhima, Okinsky Region
Ayushiyeva Irene, Kurumkansky Region
Bumboshkina Natalia, Olkhonsky Region

Archery: Men

Oshorov Zhargal, Okinsky Region
Ochirov Bayir, Zakamensky Region
Darmayev Gavryl, Tunkinsky Region

Archery: Veterans

Erdynyeev Dasha-Nima, Kurumkansky Region
Seseg, Mongolia
Ultzettuyev Damba, Zakamensky Region

Bone Throwing Champion

Tsyrenov Sodnom, Okinsky Region

Deer Roping Champion

Gomboyev Damaioy, Tunkinsky Region (winner trip to world championships)

Spirit of the Games Winner

Tsyrenov Alexei, Okinsky Region


Absolute Champion

Young People: Garmayev Venijamin, Kurumkansky Region (winner of the diamond)
Veterans: Gashinov Viktor, Kurumkansky Region

Team Score

First: Kurumkansky Region
Second: Tunkinsky Region
Third: Mongolia

Men: Less than 60 kg

First: Nurbayev Zhargal, Kurumkansky Region
Second: Garmayev Dmitry, Kurumkansky Region, Olkhonsky Region
Third: Gyrgenov Lopson, Tunkinsky Region

Men: 60 kg to less than 75 kg

First: Kozhevnikov Grygoryi, Olkhonsky Region
Second: Garmayev Sayan, Kurumkansky Region
Third: Zhambalov Vyacheslav, Tunkinsky Region

Men: 75 kg and over

First: Otgon Baatar, Mongolia
Second: Komyssarov Dorzho, Tunkinsky Region
Third: Garmayev Venijamin, Kurumkansky Region

Veterans: Less than 60 kg

First: Biliktuyev, Kurumkansky Region
Second: Ulzetuyev Damba, Zakamensky Region

Veterans: 60 kg to less than 75 kg

First: Kusheyev Bayir, Kurumkansky Region
Second: Hamaganov Pyotr, Tunkinsky Region
Third: Zakarov Dmitry, Bauntovsky Region

Veterans: 75 kg and over

First: Dorzhiyev Alexander, Tunkinsky Region
Second: Gashinov Viktor, Kurumkansky Region
Third: Peshkov Ivan, Bauntovsky Region

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