World Eskimo-Indian Olympics


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World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Mid-July or early August
Where Celebrated: Fairbanks, Alaska
Symbols and Customs: Blanket Toss, Eskimo Ice Cream, High Kick, Knuckle Hop, Miss WEIO Pageant, Muktuk-Eating Contest, Race of the Torch, Six-Ring Logo
Related Holidays: Arctic Winter Games, Olympic Games

ORIGINS

The native peoples of Alaska have a longstanding tradition of gathering together periodically for the purpose of playing games-not just the usual team sports, but games that test the specific qualities that are essential to surviving in a harsh climate where food must be hunted under extreme and often hazardous conditions. People from small villages would gather, usually during the CHRISTMAS season, to engage in informal competitions as well as dancing, storytelling, and feasting.

More than forty years ago a pilot for Wien Airlines named Frank Whaley, who had witnessed these traditional gatherings in his travels across the state and was concerned that they would soon disappear, convinced his employer and the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce to include the games as part of the city's annual Golden Days Celebration. The first "World Eskimo Olympics" was held in 1961, just two years after Alaska became a state. The Tundra Times, Alaska's only native newspaper, took over sponsorship of the event nine years later, at which point the name was changed to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, reflecting the broad range of native peoples who were now participating in the games.

What hasn't changed over the years is the nature of the games themselves. They include events that test strength, like the KNUCKLE HOP and the Arm Pull, challenges to endurance and the ability to withstand pain, like the Ear Pull, and contests that hinge on balance and agility, like the Alaskan HIGH KICK and the Toe Kick. Some of the games are clearly derived from practices associated with hunting and whaling, like the BLANKET TOSS , and many are designed to build up the brute strength that is needed to haul seals and other animals through holes in the ice. Women started competing in the early 1970s and 1980s, and in 1998 they placed first, second, and third in the Ear Weight, a contest in which competitors lift weights that are attached to their ears by loops of twine. They must lift the weights by standing up as straight as they can and then move forward over the greatest distance possible.

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics have continued to draw larger crowds of spectators and to produce more record-breaking achievements over the past four decades, and there is now an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to planning, organizing, and running the event. In addition to the athletic competitions, there are fish-cutting and seal-skinning contests, a Native Baby Contest in which both mother and child appear in tribal costumes, an Eskimo dance competition, and the ever-popular MISS WEIO PAGEANT .

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Blanket Toss

The Blanket Toss or Nalakatuk is just what it sounds like: The competitor is thrown as high as thirty feet into the air by sitting or standing in the middle of a walrus-skin "trampoline" that is held up by other team members. This practice was quite common in whaling communities, where it was used to celebrate a successful hunt. It was also used to improve a hunter's ability to spot game by elevating him to a point from which he could see over greater distances.

Eskimo Ice Cream

A favorite treat served during the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is what is known as Eskimo ice cream or akutaq. Unlike the American ice cream treat known

Special Awards

Several special awards are given annually to competitors in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics:

A.E."Bud" Hagberg Memorial Sportsmanship Athletic Award - the athlete who best exemplifies good sportsmanship; chosen by the athletes

Howard Rock Memorial Outstanding Athlete Award - the best athlete; chosen by the athletes

Frank Whaley Award Presentation for Outstanding Contributions - the individual or company who has consistently given their time, money, and effort in support of the Olympics as an Eskimo Pie, this is made from whipped berries-usually northern-grown salmonberries, which are also known as cloudberries-mixed with snow and either seal or caribou oil.

High Kick

There are actually several events involving jumping off the floor and kicking a suspended target. In the One-Foot High Kick, the competitor must use both feet to propel himself or herself upward, then kick the target with one foot and land on that same foot without losing his or her balance. Such a move was at one time used by messengers to let other villagers or hunters know that a whale had been caught or that other game was approaching. The Two-Foot High Kick is similar, except that the competitor must kick the target with both feet and land on both feet. The Alaskan High Kick is even more complicated, requiring the competitor to hold one foot with the opposite hand and, using the other hand for elevation and balance, attempt to kick the target with the foot that is free, landing in the same position without losing his or her balance-the object being to achieve as much height as possible.

Knuckle Hop

Also known as the Seal Hop because the movement it requires is similar to that used by seals, the Knuckle Hop is a challenge to both strength and endurance. The competitor gets into the position normally used for a push-up, but with all his or her weight resting on the knuckles (rather than hands) and toes. Then, keeping the back straight and the elbows partially bent, he or she attempts to "hop" forward. The goal is to cover as great a distance as possible, but of course not much distance is usually achieved. This was a game designed to be played in a hut or other confined space during the winter, or on the ground outside during the summer.

Miss WEIO Pageant

The very first World Eskimo Olympics held in 1961 featured a "Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen" contest. This contest has since been renamed "Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics," and, like the MISS AMERICA PAGEANT after which it was originally modeled, the competition emphasizes not only physical attractiveness but also poise, talent, and other accomplishments. In addition to the winner, there are awards for Miss Congeniality, Most Traditional, Most Photogenic, and Most Talented.

Muktuk-Eating Contest

Muktuk is the skin of a whale and the thin layer of blubber beneath it, usually harvested from beluga whales. Like a pie-eating contest at a country fair, the MuktukEating Contest at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics requires competitors to eat as much of this Eskimo delicacy as quickly as possible.

Race of the Torch

The Race of the Torch is a five-kilometer road race that takes place at the start of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. The male and female winners of the race are given the privilege of carrying the torches used to ignite the World Eskimo-Indian Olympic torch, which is modeled after the Olympic Flame (see OLYMPIC GAMES).

Six-Ring Logo

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics logo consists of six interconnected rings symbolizing Alaska's six major tribes: Eskimo, Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Aleut. It is modeled after the logo used by the OLYMPIC GAMES, which consists of five interconnected rings signifying the five continents: Africa, America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

FURTHER READING

Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

WEB SITE

World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Inc. www.weio.org

World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

Mid-July
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is a gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska, of Native people from throughout the state and Canada to participate in three days of games of strength and endurance. Events include the popular blanket toss, which originated in whaling communities as a method of tossing a hunter high enough to sight far-off whales. The tossees are sometimes bounced as high as 28 feet in the air. Also on the program are a sewing competition, a seal-skinning contest, Native dancing, and such events as the knuckle-hop contest, in which contestants get on all fours and hop on their knuckles. The winner is the one who goes the farthest.
CONTACTS:
World Eskimo-Indian Olympics Inc. (aka World Exhibition of Indigenous Olympics)
P.O. Box 72433
Fairbanks, AK 99707
907-452-6646; fax: 907-456-2422
www.weio.org
SOURCES:
EndurHarv-1995, p. 288
GdUSFest-1984, p. 9
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