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Part I: Arctic 'Olympic Games' unlike any other
Part I: Arctic 'Olympic Games' unlike any other
by Rev. Barbara Allen, CMP - SGN Contributing Writer

Perhaps the strangest but most authentic "Olympic Games" are those of the native Arctic people, who for as long as anyone can remember have gathered in villages to participate in good natured contests of strength, endurance, balance, ability and agility, along with dancing, drumming, songs and laughter. Hosting villages provided food and lodging, visitors brought news, stories, friendship, and, perhaps, an opportunity for romance. (Jean Auel, Clan of the Cave Bear, wrote about such events from European pre-history.) Today, you can experience them live at the World Eskimo Indian Olympic Games (WEIO), an event like no other. (Discovering them felt like finding what might become the "in" thing for those with the curiosity and courage to venture beyond the familiar.)

The games original goal was to teach survival skills to native people living in harsh environments. Today it's also about preserving cultures rich with history, stories and spirituality. There's an ancient deep natural spirituality at these Arctic games, if you understand what you're seeing among quiet, private people who survive living in the planet's most hostile environment to human life.

The first World Eskimo Olympics was held in Fairbanks in 1961, with contestants and dance teams from Barrow, Unalakleet, Tanana, Noovik and Nome. The games evolved over time to include Eskimo and Indian events, male and female contestants, young and old, reflecting the ethnicity of the contestants. The current 15-plus events include: the knuckle or seal hop, one-foot high kick, one-hand reach, Alaskan high-kick, Indian stick pull, blanket toss, fish cutting contest, blubber eating contest; seal skinning competition, Native Regalia Contest, and more. The athletic events might seem mystifying, even with explanations (to follow).

Drumming, singing and dancing by many different groups are inspiring. The Olympics logo is six interwoven rings representing the six major tribes in Alaska: Aleut, Athabascan, Eskimo, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimpsian. Only natives are allowed to compete.

Occasionally mentioned in world media, we don't hear much about it, and that's a shame, because it's fascinating, great fun to watch, and an opportunity to buy directly from Native artists and vendors who work throughout the long winter creating unique one-of-a-kind museum quality works of art for reasonable prices. These handmade product sales may be their only cash income for the year beyond what they receive from the State of Alaska.

Perhaps one of the reasons we don't hear much about the four day event is that it runs on "native time". For example, the blubber (muktuk) eating contest and the seal skinning contest did not take place in 2006 as scheduled, because the blubber and seals hadn't thawed enough. Consider that, historically, time was not measured by a mechanical device, but by when things naturally occurred. Go with an open, relaxed, laid back attitude. Be friendly and enjoy, understanding that some things may be revised. The key here is to watch, listen, hear, learn, take photos and video, while also exploring the hosting city and what it has to offer that may be unique. (There was much to see and experience in Fairbanks, more than you might imagine, suggestions to follow in future articles.)

Athletes are given more than one chance at each task, and are not competitive in the way athletes are in the more famous European based Olympics. Circumpolar survival depends upon helping one another learn and practice skills so all may benefit. The best athletes can be seen supporting and diplomatically coaching other competitors during the event, even though that might mean losing their own lead or medal. These games are about cultural pride and personal skills, with a strong spiritual component, demonstrated not only by prayer, but by doing for others as they might hope others would do for them. Time is allowed for instant coaching.

The events include:

Knuckle or Seal Hop: A game of endurance despite pain and a test of strength. Object is to see how far a contestant can go in a "push-up" position, with elbows bent and knuckles down. The only body parts allowed to touch ground are knuckles and toes. From this position the entrant "hops" forward as far as possible while keeping their back straight and elbows bent. Historically family survival depended upon this strength and endurance developed in boys. On the tundra or ice it may be necessary to approach wild game close to the ground, on hands or knuckles and toes for long distances. Girls compete in push-up position, arms straight, with palms on the floor. It's a distance race, not a speed race. A slower person with greater endurance may pass the faster player to win. When hunting seals, a seal seeing something approach that looked like another seal, was less likely to be frightened off, more likely to be dinner.

Four Man Carry: Successful hunts or gathering may result in quantities of meat, wood, or ice needing to be packed long distances. Contestants carry the heavy load of four men "draped" over them, with the only feet or body part touching ground being the contestants. Objective: greatest distance.

Ear Weight: Sixteen one pound lead ingots threaded onto a rope are lifted straight up while looped over the contestants' ear, touching no other part of their body. Then, the weight is "packed" for distance, some have achieved thousands of feet. Demonstrates ability to withstand pain as does the ear pull.

Ear Pull: Two people sit facing one another, with a shared 5 ft. string looped around their ears. Winner is determined by either one player losing the string, or being pulled across a middle line.

Drop the Bomb: Contestant lies face down on floor, arms straight out in "iron cross" position. Three "spotters", one at the feet holding the ankles, two holding each wrist, lift the body so that it's about a foot above ground. The participant tightens his/her muscles, as the spotters begin walking at a speed dictated by a floor official. When body or arms begin to sag, the participant "drops the bomb". Objective is distance in this demonstration of strength vital for arctic survival.

One-Foot High Kick: Athlete jumps off floor using both feet, kicks a suspended object with one foot, lands on the floor using that same foot, demonstrating balance. Distances the height of a basketball net are common. It's said that when a messenger from a hunting or whaling crew was within visual distance of the villages, he'd kick high into the air, thereby sending the message that a whale had been shot, or that caribou are running near. High kicks are considered the premier events of the WEIO.

Two-Foot High Kick: Similar to one foot kick, but athlete jumps off floor using both feet, hits the suspended target with both feet together, and maintains balance while landing on both feet simultaneously. This was originally a signal given to a village to come help beach a whale.

One-Hand Reach: Athlete balances on hands with at least one elbow tucked under the lower abdominal area, rest of body parallel to floor. Athlete then uses one hand to reach up and touch the suspended target, and upon doing so, must get that hand back to the floor before any other part of his/her body touches the floor. Demonstrates balance, athletic prowess and strength. Height is the objective.

Alaskan High-Kick: Game of balance. Athlete sits on floor below a target with one hand grasping the opposite foot. With remaining free hand planted on the floor, athlete springs up and attempts to kick the target with the free foot. After kicking target, athlete must show balance by landing in the original position before kicking. Height is the objective.

Kneel Jump: Contestant kneels on floor at given line, legs flat on floor with toes up, then jumping as far forward as possible, landing on their feet while maintaining balance. It's allowed to swing arms back and forth to gain momentum for the leap forward. Demonstrates quickness and balance needed when out on moving ice during break-up.

Indian Stick Pull: Test of grip using a foot-long greased stick, 1.5" diameter. Competitors grab the stick and attempt to pull it away from each other, straight back, without jerking or twisting, using a different hand on each round, for best two out of three. Indian game used to strengthen hands for grabbing slippery fish out of a fish wheel.

Eskimo Stick Pull: Two athletes face each other sitting on ground with feet pressed together and knees bent. Stick, one inch in diameter, is placed crosswise between them where their feet meet. Each athlete grabs the stick, positioning hands so that one person's hands are on the inside, and the other's hands on the outside. All hands must be touching. Using legs, arm, back, and a sure grip, contestants then try to pull the stick away from their opponent. Winner is person who either pulls the opponent over, or can pull the stick out of their opponent's hands on two out of three attempts. Athletes hand positioning reverses with each round. Strength is essential in bringing a seal in from a hole in the ice.

Toe Kick: Player stands at a given line and jumps forward attempting to kick a one inch diameter stick backward with toes of both feet remaining together. Contestant must land forward of the mark where the stick was. With each round the stick is moved two inches forward until a winner is determined. Players are allowed three attempts at each distance in case of misses. Demonstrates prowess and balance needed for negotiating rotten ice during break up.

Arm Pull: Athletes face each other with legs positioned with one leg crossing over the opposite leg of the other competitor. Locking arms at the elbows, fists down, they begin pulling the other contestant towards themselves. Best two out of three attempts wins. With each attempt players switch arms and legs. Brute strength is needed to bring quarry out of a hole in the ice.

Blanket Toss (Nalakatuk): (perhaps the only WEIO event commonly known). Walrus skins are hand stitched together with holes on the edges so that rope can be looped through all the way around for handle grips. Contestant gets in middle of skin and stands there while being tossed by dozens of volunteers. With good coordinated team effort on the part of those holding the blanket, the person being tossed can get 30 feet high in the air and must land on their feet without falling down. Similar to a trampoline, but with people as springs who can also move in all directions quickly to catch an errant jumper. It's an exhilarating event that began so that someone small could be tossed high to spot game on the horizon. It's long been part of whaling feasts. Aside from the fun of it, judges look at balance, height, movements in the air&with jumpers dancing or running in place when airborne, perhaps doing flips, somersaults. At Christmas, jumpers may throw candy to children while airborne.

Fish Cleaning: Timed speed event. When salmon are running they must be cleaned and smoked as soon as they're caught to preserve them. There is no refrigeration.

Muktuk Eating: Blubber eating is a frame of mind thing. Only one small cube (about 2 inches/side) must be eaten, and contestants are allowed to cut their own cube into smaller pieces. One of the adolescent contestants cut his up, took a taste, and raced for the nearest garbage can where he lost his muktuk, dinner, lunch and more. But, out of the dozen or so muktuk eaters, the rest either finished, or at least held down what they put into their mouths. I was invited to eat some of this muktuk which came from a Bowhead whale hunted in Barrow. It was of excellent quality, superior to other muktuk I'd eaten decades ago. Eventually my companion decided to take a tiny taste of the sample I brought back to the RV, and was surprised that it wasn't bad, but didn't ask for more. This original block could not likely be swallowed whole, and has the texture of tire rubber.

Seal Skinning: In 2006 ten seals were put onto a blue tarp, and those who entered the contest got to stand by the seal they wanted to skin. It was notable that the younger competitors stood back with respect so that their elders could choose first, and thereby lost the advantage of selecting the smallest animal to be skinned&both conventional knives and traditional native cutting tools known as ulu's were used, participants choice. Speed is the determining factor.

There were also Native Regalia fashion contests as described in a previous article.

The above events are standard. I wondered why there was no Atlatl contest. Natives may use spear throwers and spears or darts going after seals, salmon, etc. More about this fascinating cultural, sporting, spiritual event in later articles to follow, in addition to suggestions about what to do and see in Fairbanks, AK.

This years' event is in Anchorage AK, July 18-21, in the Sullivan Arena. For more information, visit www.weio.org. Additional information is available from the Anchorage Convention and Visitor's Bureau, at: http://www.anchorage.net/1948.cfm

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