They’re super cute, they’re cuddly, and none of them exist in real life—but soon they’ll be taking over everything from the airwaves to your kids’ Happy Meals. They’re Miga, Quatchi and Sumi, the uniquely Canadian mascots of the 2010 Winter Olympics. All three have some connection to the First Nation tribes, and VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) hopes their outreach will help bring about unprecedented support and participation from Canada’s indigenous population. Before you meet the mascots during opening ceremonies, learn a bit of the native lore behind them.
Miga Miga is a mythical sea bear—half ursine and half whale, whom the Vancouver Games’ website stipulates lives “beyond Vancouver Island, near Tofino, British Columbia.” Specifically, Miga is part Kermode bear (a rare type native to British Columbia) and part killer whale. Science shows that the Kermode bear is a genetic variation of the black bear common to the area, but in First Nation mythology, they are Spirit Bears. Orca whales changed into Spirit Bears when they arrived on land, and according to the folklore of coastal peoples, the bear’s distinctive white coloring is a reminder from Raven (the creator of the world) of the ice age. In the legends, it was Raven who made the world lush and green again following the ice age, and Raven who set aside a place in the Pacific Northwest for this special bear to live peacefully.
Miga surfs with the locals during the summer, as her bio reads, but developed a passion for snowboarding, or “ ‘surfing’ on snow,” during her land-bound winter months.
Quatchi Better known as Bigfoot or Yeti to his American fans, Quatchi is a legendary sasquatch. Stories of “wildmen” are common to folklore of the Pacific Northwest; the name “sasquatch,” in fact, was coined in the 1920s from a Halkomelem (a language of Canada’s First Nation tribes) word for the creature. Every continent with the exception of Antarctica seems to have some version of this hairy giant in its lore. Its tracks have been sighted from mountain to tundra across the world, and the landscape of British Columbia seems especially fertile for stories about the ubiquitous biped. One particular tribe, the Kwakiutl, depict the wildman in their traditional masks as deep-set eyes, flared nostrils, a strong brow and an abundance of hair. Sometimes the sasquatch is given a special respect in native cultures because of its apparent similarities to human beings. Vancouver 2010’s Quatchi, hailing from “Canada’s mysterious forests,” is depicted as a shy, hockey-loving creature whose greatest dream is to become a goalie.
Sumi Sumi is an animal spirit, an amalgamation of both real and mythological creatures customary to First Nation lore—his name is a derivative of “Sumesh,” a Salish word for “guardian spirit.” In keeping with his character, he sports a thunderbird’s wings, a black bear’s legs, and an orca whale hat. More than one coastal tribe has a legend regarding the thunderbird and the killer whale. In one version, rivers and narrows near the native homeland were abundant with fish and sea life—everything but the salmon, whom the natives eventually discovered were being annihilated by a fierce orca whale. Powerless to drive the marauder from their territory, they enlisted the help of a great thunderbird who emerged triumphant and saved the salmon run. Of the symbolism behind the hybrid Sumi, the Vancouver 2010 website states, “The orca is the traveller and guardian of the sea. The bear often represents strength and friendship. And the thunderbird—which creates thunder by flapping its wings—is one of the most powerful of the supernatural creatures.” Sumi is a passionate environmentalist committed to learning all the sports of the Paralympics, of which he is the official mascot.
Public Reception The mascots are not without controversy, however. While some see them as imaginative and fun, others see the trio as offensive to those of First Nations descent, citing their similarities to anime and calling them a mish-mash of aboriginal mythology. Despite that, the plush versions of the Vancouver mascots were huge sellers even weeks prior to the games, and the trio now boast everything from their own book (in both English and French) to their own Facebook fan page. “The mascots help tell the unique story of each Games,” reads the mascot history blurb on the Vancouver 2010 website. “They are often a reflection of the history, land and culture of the host region and country”—and Canada is certainly hoping that you’ll warm up to Miga, Quatchi and Sumi this winter and get to know a little bit about the cultures that make the Northwest so unique.