HOM at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

weio.org
It is an ancient tradition of the Native peoples of polar areas of the world to gather and compete in games that measure strength, agility, balance, and endurance (weio.org). Coupled with games that measure athleticism, story-telling and dancing also take place. Competition, however, is not the agent that attracts these native peoples together; it is camaraderie. This is the underlying mission of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, namely the reinforcing of existing communal bonds and the creation of new ones. This idea is present even in the WEIO’s logo that consists of six interwoven rings that represent the six major tribes of Alaska: Aleut, Athabascan, Inupiaq, Yup’ik, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimpsian (weio.org).  A testament to its powerful influence in the circumpolar world is its parenting to offshoot games, such as the Native Youth Olympics, the Arctic Winter Sports, and other festivals whose intent is to strengthen the bonds of the Alaskan Native peoples (weio.org). This continued emphasis on community building provides the ambiance for each session of the WEIO.
Photo-op with the 2nd runner-up in the Miss WEIO pageant 
  The First World Eskimo-Indian Olympics took place in Fairbanks in 1961 as a part of the Golden Days celebration, attracting participants and teams from Barrow, Nome, Fort Yukon, Tanana, Unalakleet, and Norvik (weio.org). Two pilots, “Bud” Hagberg and Frank Whaley, grew increasingly concerned by the persistent threat of western culture encroachment (explorefairbanks.com) and how it would soon replace Native traditions entirely. With this concern, Hagberg and Whaley created the WEIO as a venue for Native peoples to dance and perform in an environment that affirmed their worth and celebrated their heritage in the modern world. It was extremely successful, and the games have continued ever since. The first WEIO boasted a diverse range of competitions, including: four Eskimo dance groups, two Indian dances groups, blanket-tossing, seal-skinning, the high-kick, the ear-pull, the neck-pull, whale blubber-eating, and the Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen Contest (weio.org).  
            Many of these games are rooted in traditional Alaskan practices. For example, in the High-Kick, the competitor takes off on both feet from a standing or running start, launches him/herself into the air while keeping his/her feet parallel, and then kicks a sealskin ball that is suspended on a string (npr.org). The competitor then must stick a perfect landing. The tie to traditional practice is this: when one returned from his/her hunting trip, he/she would then run toward the village and jump in the air. The style and force of the jump indicated to the villagers whether the hunting party was a success (npr.org). Today, the women’s record for the High-Kick, set in 1965, stands at 6 feet 6 inches. The men’s record stands at 8 feet 8 inches.
            Another game unique to WEIO is Ear-Pulling, the objective: to endure as much pain as possible. Perry Ahsogeak, Chairman of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics Board of Governors explains: “Some of the stuff that we do when you’re trying to survive out in the wild or out in the ice and you’re a long way from home and you hurt yourself, you have to be able to endure that pain until help comes” (npr.org). The premise of the game is simple: two competitors sit facing each other with their legs straddled. A 2 foot-long string is then looped around their ears, with right ear to right ear, or left to left. The two competitors then begin to lean back, causing the loops to constrict. The pain is clearly visible on the competitors’ faces. Their ears become red then purple, until either the string comes off or a competitor forfeits (npr.org). The Ear-Pulling perhaps best represents the strong composition of the Native Alaskan spirit. It is an incredibly compelling testament to the strength required for these peoples to survive in such a harsh environment.
            The Nalukataq, known as the Blanket Toss, is another spectacle to behold at the WEIO. For this event, several walrus skins are stitched together. The competitor is then placed standing in the middle of the skins and is tossed into the air. Once in the air (sometimes reaching even 30 feet high!), the object of the competitor is to land on his/her feet without falling down. Similar to a trampoline, the main difference is that the tossers assume the role of the springs. Like the games discussed above, the Blanket Toss has its ties to ancient traditions. In whaling communities, the Nalukataq is performed when there has been a successful whaling season (weio.org). While it is not entirely certain why this sport was performed, it is believed to be both for spotting game over the horizon as well as for the obvious intrinsic entertainment value.
                                     Watch this video of Dr. Carriker assisting in the Women's Blanket Toss! 
            Ultimately, the competition and camaraderie that the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics generates serves an even greater purpose: survival. The need for strong social bonds as well as physical and mental endurance was exceedingly great in such a hostile political and geographic landscape. Today, the WEIO serves dually as a means to combat the encroaching culture of mainstream America while simultaneously attempting to protect its own. 
            For us visitors who are strangers to Native Alaskan culture, the WEIO provided an opportunity for us to witness firsthand some of the most authentic expressions of Alaskan culture. The thrilling feats, the arts and crafts, the foodways, and the chance to interact with these people provide the rare opportunity to genuinely meet a people who is undervalued by mainstream society and often unjustly and inaccurately framed by the media. 
                                     Interview of Brian Walker, a Board Member of WEIO 
(please excuse the poor audio quality)


- Kristen Hunter

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