by Sarah Wyatt
– USA –
Danielle Malchoff, 17, was a two-time champion at the 2007 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), held July 18-21 in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. At first glance, Danielle looks like any average teenager – her pierced eyebrow and black fingernail polish both testaments to youth culture. But Danielle knows she also represents the historic culture of her ancestors, competing fiercely in the WEIO games even though she only began participating last year. An Athabascan and Aleut, Danielle says, “I grew up in the Native community, but still learned a lot about my culture by participating”. “These games have been handed down from generation to generation. Each game has its origin and a functional purpose [in the culture].”
Danielle took first place in both the Alaskan high kick and the two-foot high kick. Requiring agility, balance and strength, the high kick events are considered the premier events of WEIO. An all-around athlete, Danielle placed second in the kneel jump, the one-foot high kick and the scissors broad jump, and then took third in the blanket toss.
Danielle received her coaching for the one-foot high kick competition from the current record holder, Carol Pickett.
This specialty requires the athlete to jump off the floor using both feet, to kick a suspended object with one foot, and then land on the floor using only that same foot. This event originated from caribou hunting; a messenger kicked high in the air as a signal to the hunters that the animals were running near.
Danielle is a high school senior who is already taking college courses. During the summer she works at a Native heritage center, and volunteers with other local causes.
For Danielle, like so many of her peers, the sports events are not the only cultural activities in which she participates. “I am active in Native dance groups,” she said. “I believe it’s vital for my generation to preserve our heritage.”
“For hundreds of years, Native peoples of the circumpolar areas of the world have gathered in small villages to participate in games of strength, endurance, balance and agility,” says Perry Ahsogeak, chair of the WEIO Board of Governors. But in 1961, a major city, Fairbanks, sponsored the World Eskimo Olympics (WEIO) as a segment of the emerging Golden Days Celebration that was started ten years earlier by pioneer Kay Kennedy to celebrate Fairbanks’ history. Six major Alaska Native groups are represented at the event: Aleuts, Athabascans, Eskimos, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian.
It wasn’t until 10 years after the WEIO games were established that the US Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, settling land claims and providing for the establishment of Alaska Native Regional Corporations to administer those claims. Alaska Natives are indigenous peoples of the state of Alaska. They include the Aleut, Inupiat, Yupik, and several Native American groups, including the Haida, Eyak, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabascan groups. Under provisions of the settlement, Natives received title to a total of 40 million acres, which was divided among approximately 220 Native villages and 12 Regional Corporations established by the Act. A 13th Regional Corporation, comprised of Natives who are non-permanent residents of Alaska, was also established. However, in some respects, Alaska Natives are treated separately from Native Americans in the contiguous United States.
The WEIO sports events are rooted in practical skills; they were originally designed to allow both men and women to demonstrate that they possessed the strength, discipline and endurance needed to survive the harsh northern environment. The competitors in the events are generally of high school or early college age, probably due to the strenuous physical demands of the events.
However, other WEIO events highlight Alaska Native dance and storytelling. Traditional cuisine also features prominently at the event.
For the first decade of the WEIO games (1961-1971), the competitors were all male. Then, in the early 1970’s, women’s divisions were established. At first, not all events in which men competed were available to the women. In 1983, the knuckle hop was added to the women’s division events. In 1998, the first women placed in the top three of the ear weight competition, an event in which two athletes sit facing each other with a single artificial sinew looped around each other’s ear. The two then begin a “tug-of-war”. The winner of two out of three pulls wins the match. This game tests participants’ ability to withstand pain.
“Female competitors learn to be self-starters at WEIO,” said Alissa Joseph, a Yupic who won the kneel jump and placed second in the Alaskan high kick behind Danielle Malchoff at the most recent games. “We learn to use our individual strength.”
Nicole Johnston, an Inupiaq, set the women’s two-foot high kick record at 78 inches in 1985. She observes proudly that the competition requires “concentration, strength and agility.”
And as Ahsogeak explains, “In the past, the goal [of the games] was to teach survival skills. Now it’s also about preserving cultures rich with history, stories and spirituality.”
What are the events?
The two-foot high kick is patterned after a hunting ritual. In this event, the athlete jumps off the floor using both feet, hits a suspended target with both feet together, and then lands with both feet touching the floor at the same time. Years ago, in the coastal whaling villages, a messenger would run back to the village and when within sight, would jump and kick both feet into the air. This informed the villagers that a whale had been caught and to prepare themselves to help in beaching the whale.
The blanket toss is always a crowd favorite at the WEIO. Several walrus skins are used to create a “blanket” roughly 8 feet in diameter. Rope is threaded through holes on the edges, to create handle grips. The competitor stands in the middle of the skin while being tossed – sometimes as high as 30 feet into the air – and is supposed to land on his/her feet without falling down. Traditionally, the blanket toss was used for spotting game over the horizon. It is also done in whaling communities in the spring to celebrate a successful whaling season, just for the simple exhilaration it provides.
“I broke the blanket the first time I competed in blanket toss,” Danielle reveals, laughing.
Another event, unique to the Eskimo-Indian people is fascinating to watch: in the knuckle hop, the only parts of the body touching the floor are knuckles and toes. From this position, the participant hops forward as far as possible while keeping the back straight and elbows bent. This is supposed to be a demonstration of brute force as well as the ability to endure pain.
The Alaska Native athletes see each other several times throughout the year, at various competitions. They all comment that their participation in WEIO prepares them for modern athletics. Danielle, for instance, also competes in volleyball and basketball, although she says she feels most comfortable participating in Alaska Native competitions.
“WEIO is unlike any other sports event,” she said. “We aren’t competing against each other, but instead against ourselves, to preserve cultural traditions and to encourage other competitors to do so.”
About the Author
Sarah Wyatt is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. A native of Iowa and a Native American, she holds a degree in Journalism and English. Wyatt has been a freelance writer for 11 years, with work appearing in Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Theater Magazine.