The first of two stories on indigenous games in the circumpolar North.

At these games, culture counts


By Julia O'Malley for Al Jazeera America

Photos by Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America

Produced by Mark Rykoff

Edited by Mark Rykoff, Katherine Lanpher

Published on Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The ball was made of sealskin, a furry sphere about the circumference of a softball, and it dangled 82 inches from the stadium floor. Autumn Ridley, an 18-year-old athlete in a Bob Marley T-shirt, studied it, letting the buzz of the stadium crowd fade from her thoughts.

This was the Alaskan high kick, one of dozens of games designed to test survival skills needed by ancient indigenous people in extreme northern climates at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). The competition, held last week in Fairbanks, Alaska, was attended by roughly 200 indigenous athletes. Thousands showed up to watch the sports, dancing and cultural demonstrations.

Similar indigenous sporting competitions are being held this month across the circumpolar north, including the Beringia Games in Chukotka, Russia, and the Traditional Circumpolar Northern Games in Inuvik, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Clockwise from top: Speed-cutting salmon; stretching before the race of the torch marathon; a competitor hits his landing in the men’s kneel jump, derived from the need to develop quickness and balance on ice when it is breaking up. (Click to enlarge images)

As Ridley approached the ball, she thought through what she calls “the journey” of the jump. She thought about how she would brace herself on the floor on one hand and loft one leg upward, stretching her body to its greatest length. Her foot, toe pointed, had to make contact with the ball.

Chances were it would. Ridley, who lives in Anchorage, is one of the best female high kickers in the world. As she approached the ball on the floor of the Fairbanks Carlson Center, she already held the world record in the Alaskan High Kick, as well as for a similar event that involves hitting the ball with both feet, the two-foot high kick.

To help focus, Ridley thought of her family, of an uncle, also a noted kicker, and her grandmother, who is from the Inupiat village of Wales, the westernmost mainland community in North America, on the edge of the Bering Sea.

Then it was time for the attack. Shoulders up. Hips up. Explosive leg. Toe to sealskin. Applause rolled down the stands. She gestured for the ball to be moved higher. Her best, the highest ever, was 83 inches, but she wanted to beat it.

Autumn Ridley, left, 18, a competitor in the women's Alaskan high kick; traditional music performed at the opening ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

Hundreds of years ago, a kick like Ridley’s, without the ball as a target, might have functioned as a signal. The shape of a body above the flat tundra was used by hunters to send a message to a village spotter, posted miles away, about the killing of a whale, walrus or caribou.

Today the technique has been preserved in sport. The WEIO’s events focus on concentration, endurance, agility, strength and pain tolerance, said Nicole Johnston, chairwoman of the WEIO board.

“Traditionally you had to rely on your own physical strength and mental preparedness to survive,” she said. “You also had to rely on your community to survive.”

Clockwise from top: In the women's preliminary blanket toss, the tossed person can reach heights of 30 feet; a demonstration of the ear pull; qualifying for the four-man carry competition. (Click to enlarge images)

Among the competitions: speed-cutting salmon for hanging in a smoker, eating whale, butchering seal, walking a greased pole, pulling a greased stick meant to represent a slippery fish and enduring a piece of sinew pulled around the back of the ear, the pain meant to simulate frostbite.

Kicking, reaching and jumping sports are some of the most competitive. Though elders compete in the games, in those events, athletes are generally in their late teens through early 30s, Johnston said.

Alaska Native sports differ from non-Native sports because of the way that the athletes are coached to think about competition, Johnston said. Family members often compete against each other. Competitions are always friendly. Often participants offer one another pointers about technique, the way people might who play on the same sports team, she said.

“There is still a competitive component to Native sports, but it’s an individual competitive sport,” she said. “You compete against yourself.”

In the one-hand reach, top, participants must balance on one hand, keep at least one elbow tucked under the lower abdomen and use the other hand to touch a suspended seal-fur-and-leather ball, bottom right. Volunteers, bottom left, measure a ball’s distance from the floor. (Click to enlarge images)

Ask WEIO athletes where they are from and the answer is always two parts. First is the name of a village far from the road system, usually on the coast or along an interior Alaska river. Chevak. Galena. Rampart. Deering. That is where family is, where subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering take place, where Native languages are spoken, where traditional games are practiced.

Next comes where the athlete lives now. More often than not, it is one of Alaska’s larger cities, like Anchorage or Fairbanks. The urban/rural push-pull is a constant in Alaska. Culture and family draw people to the villages, but better jobs and education in the cities and, sometimes, social dysfunction and poverty in the villages, push people out.

The games, which celebrate skills needed to live a rural life, are in flux.

An estimated 70 percent of athletes now come from cities, Johnston said. The cost of travel to the games from villages can be high, making it hard for rural participants, she said. And the summertime games conflict with some hunting and fishing seasons.

Prepping the pole for the greased pole walk competition. This event has its origins in situations in which the only way across a body of water is over a slippery fallen tree. (Click to enlarge images)

On the other side, there are young urban athletes who have traveled only a few times to their family’s village to participate in cultural activities like hunting and fishing. Activities like the WEIO serve as a bridge to culture for them.

Younger Natives are also more likely than their parents and far more likely than their grandparents to identify as multiracial, according to the U.S. Census. For this reason, the WEIO recently relaxed its Alaska Native blood requirement for competitors, from one-quarter Native to one-sixteenth.

“There’s a lot of people who embody the culture and the spirit and the heritage of our people,” she said, who may not have a high percentage of Native blood.

The games serve the spiritual part of being Native and teach athletes skills that enrich their lives in any setting, she said.

Backstage before the opening ceremony, left. A contestant in the Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics pageant during the opening ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

Robert “Big Bob” Aiken, 61, is a coach, a former WEIO board member and an athlete who still hold records, plus seven gold medals for the Indian stick pull, in which opponents work to get control of a greased stick. He has been involved with the games since the 1970s and lives in the far-north hub of Barrow. He wears a single polar bear claw around his neck.

He worries too few rural athletes make it to the games. That said, the games are a positive thing for those living in cities because they learn more about who they are, he said. Some players are too influenced by the ethos of non-Native or professional sports, he said. The games should have a community-minded potlatch atmosphere. They should not be about individual glory.

“Our elders shunned pride,” he said.

An open floor dance party, left, got rolling after the opening ceremony. A participant in the cutest Native baby competition. (Click to enlarge images)

Athlete Marjorie Tahbone, 25, won the WEIO’s 5K race, took home a victory in the greased pole walk and set a world record for cutting fish. She filleted her salmon and slit its flesh for hanging in a traditional smoker in 30.58 seconds.

People of her generation are defining Native culture for themselves, she said, different from the culture of their parents or grandparents.

She pointed out three black lines tattooed on her chin. They are traditional markers of maturity for Inupiat women, she said. It used to be they were given when a woman reached childbearing age, “when they were ready to give back to the community and provide for their people,” she said.

“I translated that reasoning to the modern setting, so I decided to get my traditional tattoo after I graduated from college, went back to my home community and worked for my people,” she said. “When people keep thinking in the past, when they keep thinking, ‘That’s not traditional, that’s not traditional,’ that is what is holding us back.”

Tahbone works in Nome in the field of suicide prevention. The suicide rate among Alaska Natives is as much as twice that of non-Natives, according to the state. She was still in shock, she said, over recent news that a friend she knew from the WEIO had taken his life.

“I think that’s one of the biggest issues — our identity and being proud of where you come from,” she said.

The games offer young Natives that, she said. They help them see their place in the world.

A race of the torch competitor. (Click to enlarge images)
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