Her eyes are closed as she takes in a few deep calming breaths. Like every athlete since the ancient Greeks, she is focused on getting into the zone at this Olympic event. With tool in hand, she is ready as soon as the whistle blows. Her white t-shirt and long sundress are somewhat unusual for an Olympic competition, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way. In 27 seconds, Kelly Lincoln is done while the rest of the field still struggles valiantly with their task. Proudly, she holds her completed salmon fillets up high for the judges and the audience to see. She has just won the the Fish Cutting event at the 2019 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
I was fortunate to be in Fairbanks, Alaska during this unique event which is both a demonstration of athletic prowess and a view into a unique cultural heritage. I had not planned this. Instead, it was one of those authentic serendipitous moments when I happened to be traveling at the right time in the right place to be able to attend this special local experience.
I thought I would go just for one evening, take in a few of the sights and then move on. But after a few hours of watching these unusual activities I was hooked, and I ended up going on three evenings of this four day competition. I think what really appealed to me was that this wasn’t just about the athletics, fascinating as they were – it was an expression rooted deeply in a long cultural tradition.
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics Experience
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) continues the traditions practiced when families and villages gathered together to celebrate, eat, drink, dance and play games. Following in that tradition, WEIO combines both athletic and cultural events. Like every Olympic event, there are opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies and medals ceremonies. But here, in between the sporting competitions, there were also frequent native dance performances. Dance troops made up of of all age groups enthusiastically chanted and drummed traditional and new pieces. And that’s not all. There was a baby native regalia contest. There was an adult native regalia contest. There was a Miss WEIO cultural pageant complete with tears of joy for the winner.
Craft vendors displayed and sold all manner of native products. There was a stand that sold fry bread and another that sold donuts as well as food trucks that sent up delicious smells throughout the sports center. There was an elder’s room with more food and comfy chairs to sit and chat.
The atmosphere in the arena was informal and people came and went and came back again. Most everyone seemed to know each other, and the rivalries seemed friendly and relaxed. This may have been the Eskimo Olympics but it had the fun and festive atmosphere of a fair combined with a high school basketball game. Unlike a high school sporting event though, the competitions here spanned all age ranges. As with Kelly Lincoln’s salmon filleting win, skill and experience were equally rewarded along with strength and athleticism.
The common factor for all these events at WEIO is their foundation in the real life skills needed by the indigenous tribes to live and thrive in a challenging climate. The WEIO games have risen out of a long history of the needs for preparedness and survival. Being able to clean and fillet a fish quickly at a fishing camp was a critical and necessary skill to ensure there was enough food put away for the winter. The ability to overcome pain, especially to susceptible extremities was just as importation and is the basis of the ear pull game and the ear weight game. Other competitions at WEIO are derived from the games played during the winter months to stay physically fit and maintain strength, agility and balance. Examples of these are the one handed reach and the one or two foot high kick events.
There was no doubt that for all the competitors involved, this was a serious competition that they were striving very hard to win. But the competitiveness was amicable – in fact it was friendlier than I have ever witnessed at any sporting event. More than once, I saw athletes encouraging each other, giving each other pointers and providing technical analyses on how to do better on the next attempt. Even in the finals of an event, providing support to each other was a priority.
While I did not get to see every event, the ones I did see were fascinating and displayed a broad range of skills and abilities.
One Hand Reach
In the One Hand Reach, the athlete balances on one hand while the legs are lifted off the floor. With the other hand, the athlete attempts to reach a suspended ball. Once the ball is touched, the athlete has to return to the starting position to demonstrate control and balance. Each athlete gets three tries at each height. After a successful touch, the ball is raised from 1-4 inches and the attempt is made again. This was one of the games played during the winter months to maintain physical fitness.
One Foot High Kick
In the One Foot High Kick, the athlete jumps up on both feet and attempts to kick the ball with one foot and then lands on the foot used to kick the ball. Each athlete gets three attempts at each given height. After each successful kick, the ball is raised 1-4 inches and the kick is attempted again. This was also one of the games played during the winter months to maintain physical fitness
Two Foot High Kick
Just like the one foot high kick, but in the Two Foot High Kick, the athlete needs to kick the ball with both feet, keeping them parallel to each other, and then landing balanced on both feet. Another winter game to keep fit.
Indian Stick Pull
The Indian Stick Pull mimics grabbing a fish by its tail. Two opponents take hold of a tapered stick and try to pull it away from each other.
Four Man Carry
A hunter has to be able to carry a lot of weight a long distance after a successful hunt. The objective of the Four Man Carry is to carry four 140 lb men as far as possible.
The Bench Reach is another game that tests core body strength. An athlete kneels on a padded bench and a volunteer sits on his/her legs. The athlete then tries to place an object on the floor as far as possible without letting any part of the body touch the floor, and then has to get back to the original keeling position.
Being able to withstand pain, especially the pain associated with possible frostbite was an important survival skill. The Ear Pull game tests the stamina to pain and discomfort. Two opponents wrap a loop of sinew around their ears and pull until the sinew falls off one opponent, or one of them gives up. The match is best two out of three.
Using an ulu (traditional curved knife), a contestant must quickly and neatly fillet a salmon, remove the head and the backbone, but keep the tail and notch the meat for drying. Judges evaluate speed and neatness.
Nalukataq or Blanket Toss
For the spectators, this is definitely the most fun event as it requires the participation of around thirty audience member volunteers. A number of sealskin hides are sewn together into one large piece that measures about twelve feet across. Rope is strung through holes on the perimeter which form hand grips. The audience volunteers pull the hide very taught, essentially forming a handheld trampoline. A caller yells out a beat to provide a uniform bouncing rhythm for the athlete. The objective is to jump as high as possible while showing style, grace and a balanced landing. Traditionally, this was used as a way to see to the horizon for hunting game.
I asked one of the Blanket Toss competitors how they practice for this event. His answer: they don’t. Once a year at these games they go for it and just do it!
The WEIO games have been an annual event since 1961. The games are held each year in Fairbanks, Alaska on the third weekend in July and coincide with the annual Fairbanks Golden Days festivities. For information on the WEIO games please visit https://www.weio.org/
For ideas on other Fairbanks experiences, please check out my post about 25 Summer Activities in Fairbanks.
Also check out the Explore Fairbanks visitor bureau site for year round ideas and activities.
Please note that my visit to Fairbanks was hosted by Explore Fairbanks. All content is my own.
Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook page.
Thanks for visiting.