Past Travels: The World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska
The 60th annual World Eskimo Indian Olympics didn't take place this summer but I hope this article that I wrote a couple of years ago whets your appetite to visit Fairbanks. Alaska in July 2021.
They’re a friendly bunch at the Cookie Jar café in Fairbanks, Alaska. As I sat down for breakfast with my friend Jerry, our waitress handed over my pancakes, gave me the syrup, thrust her nose into my hair and had a good old sniff.
“Well one of you boys sure smells good today,” she said with a big smile “but” looking at me “it’s not you honey.” Jerry had the snuffle treatment and it was confirmed his new aftershave was doing the trick.
I wasn’t entirely surprised. It’s a long way north to Fairbanks — pop. 32,000, 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle; daylight in summer 24 hours, daylight in winter 3 hours — and I may or may not have showered yet after the trip from London.
But they’re an eclectic, hardy lot in a town where it can get down to minus 60 centigrade in January and where the mascot for Denali National Park, two-hours drive down the highway, is a mosquito carrying off a human.
Then there are the grizzlies, and we’re not talking about the old-timers propping up the Golden Eagle Saloon just outside town in the village of Ester. (Do drop in, you’ll get a friendly welcome from the pack of hounds roaming in and out, and Frank and Earl who’ll either be at the bar or on their porch next door.) The camping store on College Road has an entire wall devoted to bear spray and other accoutrements designed to make a walk in the park round here, well hopefully, just a walk in the park.
Fairbanks is also home to the four-day World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO), an annual event that has been taking place since 1961. Dozens of Native Alaskans come from all over the state to compete in games such as ear pulling, knuckle hopping, blanket tossing and the four-man carry. It’s part competition, part family reunion and cultural celebration, with lots of hugs and catch-ups and a Miss WEIO contest, where community contribution and preparation of traditional regalia is what’s being judged, not looks.
Then there’s traditional dancing, drumming, seal skinning, salmon filleting and a competition to see who can eat chunks of frozen whale blubber, called muktuk, cut with a razor-sharp ulu, or knife, the quickest.
Even before I left England, I was wondering if the term “Eskimo” is even politically correct these days. Depends who you ask in Alaska, it turns out. The majority attending the games are Yup’ik, Iñupiaq and Athabaskan peoples. “It’s all a matter of perspective” Nick Hanson, a competitor from Unalakleet, who has taken part on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, tells me. “I’m an Iñupiaq Eskimo and I’m proud of my culture. I’m not Yup’ik but I’m not going to argue if someone just says Eskimo because that’s a general term for the people of the north. From what I understand ‘Eskimo’ is derived from French settlers and means ‘eaters of raw meat’ and I eat raw meat so I’m not going to take any offence from it.”
But another young competitor had an alternative view. “Here at the games it’s OK because we have all these native groups come together to compete,” she tells me “but to describe our cultures, it’s not alright to lump us together as Eskimo because it generalises us and we’re very diverse. I’m a coastal Iñupiaq but my friend here would tell you she’s from Nunakauyaq in the Qaluyaarmiut region of the Yup’ik people.”
You’re unlikely to see any of the events taking place in Fairbanks at the Tokyo Olympics, but there are fascinating glimpses into the tough, traditional lives of the Native Alaskan peoples.
Ear Pulling – caribou sinew is platted into a thin but tough strand and then looped around two competitor’s ears in an aural tug of war – for example, was designed to toughen you up. If you got frostbite out hunting walrus in winter, tough luck.
Nalukataq, or blanket tossing – up to 50 people hang onto old seal or walrus skins that have been sewn together and launch a man or woman as high as possible into the air to see if they can land back on their feet – was used out hunting, in the absence of trees to climb, to spot if any game was in striking distance.
Knuckle hopping is just that, a race in a kind of push-up position where the competitor is only on their knuckles and toes and mimics the motion of a seal, another toughener-upper. Other events such as the impressive High Kick, when a ball made of sealskin, hanging high off the ground, has to be kicked from an almost standing start, were ideal for playing in confined spaces during the long darkness of winter.
Around the arena, local products were on sale, including walrus whisker earrings for $20, wolf claw necklaces for $95 and sealskin boots for $145. There is walrus tusk ivory too: Native Alaskans are allowed to hunt walruses and sell their byproducts such as bones, whiskers and ivory, but the main reason to kill them is still for food.
One striking aspect of all the competitions is the outward absence of any competitiveness. Contestants gather round to give each other advice on how they could do better in the next round, and there are lots of handshakes and haunting, traditional hunting whoops to encourage each other on.
The games serve another purpose too, which is to foster pride in native culture and to get youth away from Play Stations and computer screens and interested instead in the language, traditions and games of their forefathers. And also, just to get active. It may not be surprising when winter conditions are what they are, but inactivity and poor diet lead to diabetes, which can be high in some remote communities. There are other frightening statistics too, that place rural Alaskan communities unfortunately high in poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence tables. It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that these are problems unique to Native Alaskans alone.
Away from the Carlson Center where the festivities are taking place, there was time to explore Fairbanks, which was founded on the banks of the Chena River in 1901 by Elbridge Truman Barnette, hoping there was gold in them there hills. (Turned out, there was.)
In summer, it gets surprisingly hot – the highest-ever temperature recorded in the state was a balmy 37.8c – while in winter, hemmed in by the Brooks Range to the North and the Alaska Range to the south, the stable but cold climate makes it the world’s top spot to view the Northern Lights. In the chilly season charter flights bring tourists nonstop from as far away as Taiwan and Japan to dog mush and poach in hot tubs while the Aurora Borealis flickers away overhead.
“We think the lights are our ancestors,” Miss Weio winner Piiyuuk Olivia Shields, 23, from Toksook Bay tells me as we chat about the community work she does back home, which includes sewing circles conducted in her native Yup’ik language.
“They come out to dance for us, and we dance for them. But we can’t whistle because that would encourage the Aurora to take you away to the spirit world before it’s your time to go. I can hear them talking…if you listen carefully there’s a whirring grrrrrrrrr sound.”
Piiyuuk also confirms that Native Alaskans do indeed have a ton of words for snow – “there’s fluffy snow, damp snow, snow that’s been there for a while, snow that’s deep underneath current snow, snow that turns into little balls, snow that turns into ice but isn’t snowflakes, snow that’s fresh and powdery, slushy snow, slush that’s turned into ice and snow that’s almost just frost” – that they don’t live in igloos (those are just temporary shelters for hunters), and that they don’t rub noses as a hello; that’s more of an intimate family bonding ritual than a greeting.
Back at the WEIO venue the blanket toss, always a crowd-pleaser, was in full hurrah. Volunteers from the audience, including me, grabbed a section of the skin blanket and thrust competitors into the air, sometimes up to 30 feet high. Tiring work. There’s an undulating rhythm, a gentle up and down, up and down, while the competitor balances on the skin swinging their arms for coordination.
Then a coordinator calls out in Iñupiaq atausiq, malguk, pinasut! (1,2,3), and then, ooof, up into the air the man or woman goes, with points awarded by judges for balance, height and style. If the competitors don’t land on their feet, they’re out. Afterwards, there are smiles and high fives for all fifty tossers.
In a world of big-money sports there is something exceedingly charming, and yet tough, about the World Eskimo Indian Games. It really is about the taking part. The prize here is just a medal, and honour of course.
I ask Leroy Shangin from Anchorage, who is trying to run 60 metres with 7-kilo weights hooked over his ear, about his technique. I’m slightly hesitant as he looks the sort whose pint you’d try not to spill. “I just go for it and hope for the best. The furthest I’ve got is 866 feet. I was a commercial fisherman so you just deal with pain, dislocated fingers, broken back, you just carry on, if you’re not fishing you’re not making money.” I don’t think Leroy is the kind of man who gets his hair sniffed by strangers at breakfast, but hey, this is Alaska. Anything can happen. And does.
Photo Credits. Top photo & moth + child = Finlay MacKay; car & motorbikes on highway = Ferdinand (Unsplash); Aurora Borealis = Vincent Guth; All other photos = mine.