For 60 Years, Indigenous Alaskans Have Hosted Their Personal Olympics | Journey

Each summer season, Fairbanks, Alaska, performs host to one of the essential cultural occasions for Alaska Natives, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Since 1961, the four-day occasion has been drawing athletes with Native heritage from the farthest reaches of the state and internationally to compete in a variety of competitions, all linked to survival abilities and cultural practices which have been deeply rooted inside their communities for generations.

This yr’s occasion is especially salient contemplating final yr’s was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, marking the primary time within the WEIO’s 60-year run that it had been known as off. Whereas WEIO’s historical past is comparatively brief in relation to the histories of the state’s many Alaska Native communities, which embrace however should not restricted to the Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Athabascan (additionally spelled Athabaskan), that wealthy tapestry of various cultures is what led to the WEIO’s founding within the first place.

In 1961, two business airline pilots, Invoice English and Tom Richards, Sr., who flew for the now-defunct Wien Air Alaska, have been flying forwards and backwards to a number of the state’s outlying communities. Throughout these visits, they watched Alaska Natives carry out dances and different bodily actions, such because the blanket toss, an occasion the place 30 or extra individuals maintain a blanket product of hides and toss one particular person within the air. The aim is to stay balanced and land on one’s ft. (The occasion stems from the Iñupiaq, an indigenous group from northern Alaska, who would use a blanket to toss a hunter within the air as a technique to see over the horizon throughout hunts.)

“They [English and Richards] had a real appreciation for what they have been witnessing and knew that these actions have been one thing that individuals in the remainder of the state ought to see for themselves to get a greater understanding of the worth of traditions taking place outdoors Alaska’s large cities,” says Gina Kalloch, chairwoman of the WEIO board who’s Koyukon Athabascan.

That summer season, the town of Fairbanks, with the help of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and Wien Air Alaska, hosted the primary WEIO, then merely often called the World Eskimo Olympics. A. E. “Bud” Hagberg and Frank Whaley, two workers of the airline, are credited as being the founders of WEIO. The airline even provided to fly athletes from their villages to the town to compete in quite a lot of occasions, a lot of them showcasing residing traditions in Native tradition. All instructed, 4 Eskimo dance teams, two Indian dance teams, and rivals within the excessive kick, blanket toss and seal skinning participated. A Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen contest additionally befell on the inaugural video games.

High kick
An athlete competes within the two foot excessive kick competitors on the WEIO.

(Flickr person Fairbanks Mike)

Quick ahead to at the moment and 1000’s of spectators watch lots of of athletes compete in almost two dozen athletic occasions, all conventional video games that lengthy predate the WEIO. The knuckle hop assessments rivals’ endurance as they “hop” ahead in a push-up place with solely their knuckles and toes touching the ground. The four-man carry assessments athletes’ energy and skill to hold heavy masses for extended durations of time, very similar to hauling animal meat house after a profitable hunt. And eventually, the Indian stick pull mimics the talents wanted to seize a fish out of the water, however on this case, two rivals attempt to pry a greased one-foot-long dowel out of the opposite’s hand. The WEIO web site describes the notorious ear pull as “a recreation of stamina” that entails two individuals with a chunk of sinew looped behind every of their ears competing in a recreation of tug-of-war; they pull as laborious as they will with the target of ripping the sinew off their opponent’s ear. (Watch this video at your personal threat.)

“The ear pull is particularly designed to be a contest to face up to ache,” Kalloch says. “The ache mimics what it’s prefer to expertise frostbite and teaches individuals to study to take care of ache. I did it as soon as and I’ll by no means do it once more, nonetheless my daughter received a gold medal in it.”

Ear pull
The notorious ear pull competitors assessments contestants’ skill to beat ache.


Kalloch, nonetheless, is a gold medalist within the Alaskan excessive kick, an occasion that entails an athlete on the bottom balancing on one hand whereas stretching a leg to kick a suspended object hanging within the air, similar to a ball. She’s participated in a lot of energy occasions too, just like the Eskimo stick pull the place two athletes sit on the bottom whereas gripping their fingers round a stick and pulling, with the target of toppling the opponent over. The latter occasion assessments abilities much like these wanted to pull a seal from a gap within the ice throughout a winter hunt whereas the previous is a typical pastime among the many Iñupiaq in the course of the chilly days of winter.

Kalloch says two of the most well-liked occasions on the Olympics are the one-foot excessive kick and the two-foot excessive kick, which require athletes to leap and kick at a suspended object whereas touchdown on their ft. The origin of those two occasions, that are completely different occasions from the Alaskan excessive kick, could be traced again to a type of communication that was utilized by residents of coastal fishing communities earlier than the arrival of walkie talkies and cell telephones.

“In Alaska’s northern areas, it’s actually flat and you may see for miles,” she says. “Throughout hunts, one of many hunters would use various kinds of kicks to ship alerts again to the village to say whether or not somebody was harm or if they’d a profitable hunt and wanted extra individuals to help in bringing again [the kill]. This type of communication would allow them to say something you’d wish to talk over the cellphone or by telegraph.”

Music and dance performances are an integral a part of the WEIO.


Amber Applebee, who can be Athabascan, has been competing in energy occasions just like the Eskimo stick pull, arm pull (the place two seated athletes loop arms on the elbow and attempt to pull their opponent upwards) and the greased pole stroll (a recreation of stability the place opponents stroll barefoot throughout a greased log) on the WEIO for years. She’s additionally served as a coach for greater than twenty years, usually competing towards athletes whom she’s skilled. As a result of the occasions aren’t divided by age group, it’s not unusual for youngsters and younger adults to go head-to-head (or ear to ear) with somebody their senior. The one division the WEIO employs is gender. Athletes should be at the least 12 years previous to compete.

“It’s a convention amongst [Alaska Natives] to show,” Applebee says. “Children usually develop up by way of this program and see their dad and mom and grandparents competing. We sit up for attending the WEIO as a result of we get to see relations that we don’t usually see. It’s like an enormous household reunion.”

Applebee, who has three youngsters of her personal, all of whom are medalists, says that camaraderie is a key a part of the video games, and that it’s not unusual for rivals to cheer on their rivals.

“When my daughter was 13 and competing for the primary time [at the WEIO] we additionally occurred to be up towards one another within the Indian stick pull,” Applebee says. “She kicked my butt and received gold; I received silver.”

Right now, greater than a decade later, her daughter is a decide.

“It’s actually essential for me to cross these traditions down from one era to the subsequent,” she says. “I need my youngsters to know who we’re and what our individuals did, and the WEIO is one of the best ways to do this.”

Whereas the WEIO is without doubt one of the largest organizations in Alaska nurturing these Native traditions for future generations, they don’t seem to be alone. NYO Video games Alaska gives its personal lineup of video games particularly geared towards athletes of their youth as a technique to get them concerned in cultural traditions from an early age. As well as, each businesses supply Alaska Natives the chance to proceed training the traditions of their ancestors, which is very essential for these residing in city areas the place they’re much less more likely to are available in contact with features of their heritage regularly.

“[The WEIO] turns into extra essential yr after yr, since so a lot of our individuals have misplaced a connection to our land and our languages,” Kalloch says. “Life adjustments trigger individuals to maneuver to the town to get jobs. In a method it’s progress, however with Native individuals, there’s at all times a loss connected to it. The Olympics give individuals the prospect to attach with generations earlier than them and the chance to do what their ancestors have accomplished. We really feel a robust want to carry on to what we are able to, which is what makes us who we’re.”

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics are being held July 21 by way of 24 in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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