Native games rooted in survival skills
Vail, CO Colorado
ANCHORAGE, Alaska ” With four grown men hanging like rag dolls from his 340-lb. frame, Demetrius VanFleet lumbers nearly 100 feet before weariness sets in.
The crowd at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics clearly approves, barking like seals and clapping until VanFleet, a 6’2″ moving man, drops his grinning passengers gently to the floor.
The four-man carry, and 17 other events at this week’s annual games, are light-hearted contests, but they are deeply rooted in the critical skills of traditional Arctic survival. Even the Eskimo seal cheer stems from an essential hunting call used while stalking the furred, oil-rich animals.
“When you’re out on the ice, jumping from ice floe to ice floe, or out hunting, you have to rely on your own personal skill in order to survive,” said Olympics chairman Perry Ahsogeak, who is Inupiaq Eskimo. “These games provide you that skill.”
For the carrying contest, four 150-lb. men climb onto the athletes, then go limp to simulate dead weight. In the days before snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, the competition prepared hunters to haul the carcasses of caribou, seal or bear across the rugged terrain of the north.
VanFleet, who is half Mojave Indian and half Eskimo, has moved far from the home of his Inupiaq ancestors to sunny Phoenix. His strength training comes from his job of delivering large freight items like hospital equipment, computers and couches.
“I like the strongman games, the stick pull, the arm pull, the four-man carry,” he said. “They’re pretty easy for me.”
The Eskimo-Indian Olympics was started 46 years ago in Fairbanks to preserve Native culture as Western religion and beliefs spread into small rural communities.
Participants in these ancient games must be at least one-quarter Eskimo, Aleut, Indian or American Indian from Alaska, Greenland, Siberia or Canada.
Many of the several hundred competitors, most from around Alaska, said they don’t train much for the four-day games, which run through Saturday. Athletes say the event is a good excuse to visit with friends from far-flung communities around the enormous state.
“I just saw some people that I haven’t seen in 10 or 15 years,” said 31-year-old Gloria Lockwood, who works in the Arctic oil fields of the North Slope. “I really needed a vacation, but this is close enough.”
One event is nearly impossible to practice because the pain lingers for weeks. The seal hop requires athletes to maintain a push-up position, their hands in fists, while hopping across a wood floor on their toes and knuckles.
Hunters used the technique to mimic the movement of a seal across an ice pack, said David Thomas, 20, of Palmer.
Thomas was competing in the toe kick. The game hones the agility and balance needed to maneuver on slabs of melting ice in the spring. From a standing position, competitors jumped forward and, while in midair, attempted to make a rounded stick roll backward with a light flick of the toes.
“Sometimes I practice at home with a pen, or a stick, like this dowel,” said Thomas, who works as a Native games demonstrator at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Many younger athletes, like 15-year-old Justin Constantine, learned the traditional games through the Native Youth Olympics. About 70 schools participate in the competition for 7th-12th graders of any ethnicity.
Constantine, who was pumping himself up with Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur on his iPod, said he practices many of the events on a mat in his garage. He practices his best event, the one-foot high-kick, with a ball of socks hanging from a string.
Coastal whaling villages traditionally used high kicks like signal flags to communicate by sight over long distances.
“A lot of the events are from up north area and we never lived up there,” said his mother, Connie Burnell of Big Lake, 50 miles north of Anchorage. “This is a way for them to connect to that.” Burnell was referring to her family’s ancestral home near the town of Kotzebue, just inside the Arctic Circle on the western Alaska coast.
The games lasted late into the night during the long days of the Alaskan summer. As the sun set a little after 11 p.m., about a dozen competitors knelt, knives at the ready, for the fish filleting contest.
Winner Willa Towarak Eckenweiler gutted, filleted and notched her fish in 35 seconds using a crescent-shaped knife called an ulu. Eckenweiler is from the Bering Sea fishing community of Unalakleet. She and her family sometimes catch 1,000 salmon in a day. The secret to cutting fish fast, she said, is “a really sharp knife, four or five if there are a lot of fish.”
With efficient food preparation also an important part of survival, the games include a seal-skinning and muktuk eating contest, a variation of the Coney Island hot dog contest with whale meat in lieu of franks.
Friends and relatives of the participants made up the bulk of the crowd. A few tourists also wandered the tables of vendors selling Alaska Native arts and crafts: bedroom moccasins made of seal fur, walrus ivory jewelry, bowhead whale bone masks and wood carvings of puffins, owls and killer whales.
“I like the spirit, the spirit of the competition and the unity that it brings,” said VanFleet, who came to the games at the request of his father.
He took off his gold medal and looped it over his father’s head.
“Here you go Dad,” he said. “Happy Birthday.”
World Eskimo-Indian Olympics: http://www.weio.org/