Every summer, Fairbanks, Alaska, plays host to one of the most important cultural events for Alaska Natives, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Since 1961, the four-day event has been drawing athletes with Native heritage from the farthest reaches of the state and internationally to compete in a wide range of competitions, all linked to survival skills and cultural practices that have been deeply rooted within their communities for generations.
This year’s event is particularly salient considering last year’s was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, marking the first time in the WEIO’s 60-year run that it had been called off. While WEIO’s history is relatively short in relation to the histories of the state’s many Alaska Native communities, which include but are not limited to the Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Athabascan (also spelled Athabaskan), that rich tapestry of different cultures is what led to the WEIO’s founding in the first place.
In 1961, two commercial airline pilots, Bill English and Tom Richards, Sr., who flew for the now-defunct Wien Air Alaska, were flying back and forth to some of the state’s outlying communities. During these visits, they watched Alaska Natives perform dances and other physical activities, such as the blanket toss, an event where 30 or more people hold a blanket made of hides and toss one person in the air. The goal is to remain balanced and land on one's feet. (The event stems from the Iñupiaq, an indigenous group from northern Alaska, who would use a blanket to toss a hunter in the air as a way to see over the horizon during hunts.)
“They [English and Richards] had a true appreciation for what they were witnessing and knew that these activities were something that people in the rest of the state should see for themselves to get a better understanding of the value of traditions happening outside Alaska's big cities,” says Gina Kalloch, chairwoman of the WEIO board who is Koyukon Athabascan.
That summer, the city of Fairbanks, with the support of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and Wien Air Alaska, hosted the first WEIO, then simply known as the World Eskimo Olympics. A. E. “Bud” Hagberg and Frank Whaley, two employees of the airline, are credited as being the founders of WEIO. The airline even offered to fly athletes from their villages to the city to compete in a variety of events, many of them showcasing living traditions in Native culture. All told, four Eskimo dance groups, two Indian dance groups, and competitors in the high kick, blanket toss and seal skinning participated. A Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen contest also took place at the inaugural games.
Fast forward to today and thousands of spectators watch hundreds of athletes compete in nearly two dozen athletic events, all traditional games that long predate the WEIO. The knuckle hop tests competitors' endurance as they "hop" forward in a push-up position with only their knuckles and toes touching the floor. The four-man carry tests athletes' strength and ability to carry heavy loads for prolonged periods of time, much like hauling animal meat home after a successful hunt. And finally, the Indian stick pull mimics the skills needed to grab a fish out of the water, but in this case, two competitors try to pry a greased one-foot-long dowel out of the other's hand. The WEIO website describes the infamous ear pull as “a game of stamina” that involves two people with a piece of sinew looped behind each of their ears competing in a game of tug-of-war; they pull as hard as they can with the objective of ripping the sinew off their opponent’s ear. (Watch this video at your own risk.)
“The ear pull is specifically designed to be a competition to withstand pain,” Kalloch says. “The pain mimics what it’s like to experience frostbite and teaches people to learn to deal with pain. I did it once and I’ll never do it again, however my daughter won a gold medal in it.”
Kalloch, however, is a gold medalist in the Alaskan high kick, an event that involves an athlete on the ground balancing on one hand while stretching a leg to kick a suspended object hanging in the air, such as a ball. She’s participated in a number of strength events too, like the Eskimo stick pull where two athletes sit on the ground while gripping their hands around a stick and pulling, with the objective of toppling the opponent over. The latter event tests skills similar to those needed to pull a seal from a hole in the ice during a winter hunt whereas the former is a common pastime among the Iñupiaq during the cold days of winter.
Kalloch says two of the most popular events at the Olympics are the one-foot high kick and the two-foot high kick, which require athletes to jump and kick at a suspended object while landing on their feet. The origin of these two events, which are different events from the Alaskan high kick, can be traced back to a form of communication that was used by residents of coastal fishing communities before the advent of walkie talkies and cell phones.
“In Alaska’s northern regions, it’s really flat and you can see for miles,” she says. “During hunts, one of the hunters would use different types of kicks to send signals back to the village to say whether someone was hurt or if they had a successful hunt and needed more people to assist in bringing back [the kill]. This form of communication would let them say anything you would want to communicate over the phone or by telegraph.”
Amber Applebee, who is also Athabascan, has been competing in strength events like the Eskimo stick pull, arm pull (where two seated athletes loop arms at the elbow and try to pull their opponent upwards) and the greased pole walk (a game of balance where opponents walk barefoot across a greased log) at the WEIO for years. She’s also served as a coach for more than two decades, often competing against athletes whom she’s trained. Because the events aren’t divided by age group, it’s not uncommon for teenagers and young adults to go head-to-head (or ear to ear) with someone their senior. The only division the WEIO employs is gender. Athletes must be at least 12 years old to compete.
“It’s a tradition amongst [Alaska Natives] to teach,” Applebee says. “Kids often grow up through this program and see their parents and grandparents competing. We look forward to attending the WEIO because we get to see relatives that we don’t often see. It’s like a big family reunion.”
Applebee, who has three children of her own, all of whom are medalists, says that camaraderie is a key part of the games, and that it’s not uncommon for competitors to cheer on their rivals.
“When my daughter was 13 and competing for the first time [at the WEIO] we also happened to be up against each other in the Indian stick pull,” Applebee says. “She kicked my butt and got gold; I got silver.”
Today, more than a decade later, her daughter is a judge.
“It’s really important for me to pass these traditions down from one generation to the next,” she says. “I want my children to know who we are and what our people did, and the WEIO is the best way to do that.”
While the WEIO is one of the largest organizations in Alaska nurturing these Native traditions for future generations, they're not alone. NYO Games Alaska offers its own lineup of games specifically geared toward athletes in their youth as a way to get them involved in cultural traditions from an early age. In addition, both agencies offer Alaska Natives the opportunity to continue practicing the traditions of their ancestors, which is especially important for those living in urban areas where they're less likely to come in contact with aspects of their heritage on a regular basis.
“[The WEIO] becomes more important year after year, since so many of our people have lost a connection to our land and our languages," Kalloch says. "Life changes cause people to move to the city to get jobs. In a way it’s progress, but with Native people, there’s always a loss attached to it. The Olympics give people the chance to connect with generations before them and the opportunity to do what their ancestors have done. We feel a strong need to hold on to what we can, which is what makes us who we are.”
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics are being held July 21 through 24 in Fairbanks, Alaska.