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

Alison Rombough

Each individual summer season, Fairbanks, Alaska, plays host to a single of the most critical cultural gatherings for Alaska Natives, the Earth Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Due to the fact 1961, the four-day party has been drawing athletes with Indigenous heritage from the farthest reaches of the state and internationally to contend in a huge vary of competitions, all linked to survival techniques and cultural practices that have been deeply rooted within their communities for generations.

This year’s function is significantly salient contemplating final year’s was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, marking the very first time in the WEIO’s 60-calendar year operate that it experienced been referred to as off. While WEIO’s heritage is comparatively brief in relation to the histories of the state’s numerous Alaska Native communities, which contain but are not restricted to the Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Athabascan (also spelled Athabaskan), that loaded tapestry of different cultures is what led to the WEIO’s founding in the initially put.

In 1961, two professional airline pilots, Invoice English and Tom Richards, Sr., who flew for the now-defunct Wien Air Alaska, were being traveling back again and forth to some of the state’s outlying communities. In the course of these visits, they watched Alaska Natives execute dances and other bodily activities, these kinds of as the blanket toss, an function the place 30 or far more men and women maintain a blanket produced of hides and toss one man or woman in the air. The purpose is to stay well balanced and land on one’s toes. (The occasion stems from the Iñupiaq, an indigenous group from northern Alaska, who would use a blanket to toss a hunter in the air as a way to see above the horizon for the duration of hunts.)

“They [English and Richards] had a true appreciation for what they were witnessing and knew that these actions were something that men and women in the rest of the state must see for on their own to get a better knowing of the benefit of traditions occurring outside Alaska’s big towns,” states Gina Kalloch, chairwoman of the WEIO board who is Koyukon Athabascan.

That summer, the metropolis of Fairbanks, with the aid of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and Wien Air Alaska, hosted the initial WEIO, then merely known as the Earth Eskimo Olympics. A. E. “Bud” Hagberg and Frank Whaley, two workers of the airline, are credited as getting the founders of WEIO. The airline even available to fly athletes from their villages to the town to compete in a wide range of functions, numerous of them showcasing residing traditions in Native tradition. All informed, four Eskimo dance groups, two Indian dance groups, and competitors in the substantial kick, blanket toss and seal skinning participated. A Overlook Eskimo Olympics Queen contest also took place at the inaugural game titles.

High kick
An athlete competes in the two foot higher kick competitors at the WEIO.

(Flickr user Fairbanks Mike)

Rapid forward to right now and 1000’s of spectators enjoy hundreds of athletes compete in almost two dozen athletic gatherings, all classic games that extended predate the WEIO. The knuckle hop checks competitors’ endurance as they “hop” forward in a force-up situation with only their knuckles and toes touching the floor. The 4-man carry tests athletes’ power and ability to have weighty loads for prolonged intervals of time, a great deal like hauling animal meat household following a prosperous hunt. And eventually, the Indian stick pull mimics the skills desired to grab a fish out of the water, but in this scenario, two opponents attempt to pry a greased just one-foot-lengthy dowel out of the other’s hand. The WEIO internet site describes the notorious ear pull as “a activity of stamina” that consists of two persons with a piece of sinew looped guiding every of their ears competing in a recreation of tug-of-war they pull as really hard as they can with the goal of ripping the sinew off their opponent’s ear. (Watch this online video at your own possibility.)

“The ear pull is precisely intended to be a levels of competition to stand up to discomfort,” Kalloch claims. “The agony mimics what it’s like to working experience frostbite and teaches people to understand to offer with suffering. I did it at the time and I’ll never do it once more, nevertheless my daughter received a gold medal in it.”

Ear pull
The infamous ear pull competitors assessments contestants’ ability to conquer pain.


Kalloch, however, is a gold medalist in the Alaskan superior kick, an event that will involve an athlete on the floor balancing on one hand while stretching a leg to kick a suspended item hanging in the air, this sort of as a ball. She’s participated in a quantity of toughness events as well, like the Eskimo stick pull exactly where two athletes sit on the ground though gripping their hands all over a stick and pulling, with the objective of toppling the opponent about. The latter occasion checks abilities equivalent to people desired to pull a seal from a hole in the ice throughout a winter season hunt whereas the former is a typical pastime amongst the Iñupiaq through the cold times of winter season.

Kalloch suggests two of the most well-known gatherings at the Olympics are the just one-foot substantial kick and the two-foot substantial kick, which need athletes to leap and kick at a suspended item although landing on their ft. The origin of these two functions, which are distinctive activities from the Alaskan substantial kick, can be traced back again to a form of communication that was utilized by people of coastal fishing communities prior to the advent of walkie talkies and cell phones.

“In Alaska’s northern locations, it’s definitely flat and you can see for miles,” she claims. “During hunts, one of the hunters would use distinct forms of kicks to send alerts again to the village to say no matter whether an individual was hurt or if they experienced a productive hunt and necessary additional persons to help in bringing again [the kill]. This variety of interaction would let them say everything you would want to connect in excess of the cell phone or by telegraph.”

New music and dance performances are an integral aspect of the WEIO.


Amber Applebee, who is also Athabascan, has been competing in toughness gatherings like the Eskimo stick pull, arm pull (the place two seated athletes loop arms at the elbow and test to pull their opponent upwards) and the greased pole walk (a game of equilibrium exactly where opponents walk barefoot across a greased log) at the WEIO for decades. She’s also served as a mentor for much more than two a long time, typically competing from athletes whom she’s qualified. Because the events are not divided by age group, it is not uncommon for teenagers and youthful adults to go head-to-head (or ear to ear) with someone their senior. The only division the WEIO employs is gender. Athletes have to be at minimum 12 decades outdated to compete.

“It’s a custom amongst [Alaska Natives] to educate,” Applebee claims. “Kids often improve up by way of this software and see their moms and dads and grandparents competing. We search ahead to attending the WEIO for the reason that we get to see relations that we really don’t typically see. It is like a massive household reunion.”

Applebee, who has 3 youngsters of her individual, all of whom are medalists, suggests that camaraderie is a vital section of the games, and that it’s not uncommon for competitors to cheer on their rivals.

“When my daughter was 13 and competing for the first time [at the WEIO] we also happened to be up against each other in the Indian stick pull,” Applebee suggests. “She kicked my butt and received gold I got silver.”

Now, far more than a decade later, her daughter is a decide.

“It’s actually essential for me to pass these traditions down from a single technology to the up coming,” she says. “I want my children to know who we are and what our men and women did, and the WEIO is the finest way to do that.”

Though the WEIO is a single of the largest organizations in Alaska nurturing these Native traditions for upcoming generations, they are not alone. NYO Online games Alaska features its personal lineup of games specifically geared towards athletes in their youth as a way to get them involved in cultural traditions from an early age. In addition, both organizations offer Alaska Natives the option to keep on working towards the traditions of their ancestors, which is primarily crucial for those residing in city areas where they’re much less very likely to come in get hold of with areas of their heritage on a typical foundation.

“[The WEIO] will become additional significant 12 months following yr, due to the fact so several of our persons have lost a relationship to our land and our languages,” Kalloch claims. “Lifestyle improvements lead to individuals to move to the city to get positions. In a way it’s progress, but with Indigenous persons, there is constantly a decline connected to it. The Olympics give persons the possibility to connect with generations before them and the possibility to do what their ancestors have accomplished. We really feel a solid need to have to hold on to what we can, which is what tends to make us who we are.”

The Planet Eskimo-Indian Olympics are becoming held July 21 by 24 in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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