Native Youth Olympics athlete Sara Steeves, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, takes to the air in a blanket toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Native Youth Olympics athlete Sara Steeves, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, takes to the air in a blanket toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Getting air on a seal skin blanket: Juneau students learn Iñupiat tradition

Watch a blanket toss.

For Friday’s lunch hour, some Thunder Mountain High School students put down their pencils and picked up a piece of Iñupiat tradition.

Native Youth Olympics coach Kyle Kaayák’w Worl and approximately 50 high school students spent the noon hour “throwing” their peers 10-15 feet above a trampoline-sized seal skin blanket. Grasping loops of rope and bending forward and backward in unison, the five dozen teenagers watched gleefully as they shot their classmates into the air, and in some cases, had to reposition themselves to ensure for a safe landing.

“At the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics you’ll see them go at least twice as high as that,” said Worl, who said they only had about two-thirds of the optimum amout of pullers. “It’s a huge adrenaline rush to do it. You’ll see people do back flips and spins and high kicks.”

Native Youth Olympics athlete Sara Steeves, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, takes to the air in a blanket toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Native Youth Olympics athlete Sara Steeves, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, takes to the air in a blanket toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

The event served as a precursor to the 2019 Traditional Games, a statewide indigenous sporting event that took place Saturday and Sunday at TMHS. The Worl-led Juneau team competed against competition from Hoonah, Ketchikan, Metlakatla, Yakutat, Bethel, Utqiagvik, Whitehorse and Northern Arizona University.

“It was a way to preview our event tomorrow (Saturday) to bring more people in but also I wanted to show the broader school what these games are about,” Worl said. “A lot of them haven’t seen it before, they might be a little too nervous to check out these games, but we want everyone to feel like it’s something that they could be a part of.”

A traditional bearded seal blanket borrowed from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics waits a toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

A traditional bearded seal blanket borrowed from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics waits a toss demonstration during the lunch hour in the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

TMHS sophomore Tiana Ault was one of the last lucky students to get on the blanket, and was still smiling 10 minutes after she finished.

“It’s a lot like jumping on the trampoline but you’re not jumping,” she said. “You’re having people pull you up. You’re getting the same air as you do on a trampoline but it’s different because you’re getting pulled this time. You have no ability to jump because it pushes you up.”

Worl thinks it’s the first time an authentic Iñupiat blanket has made it to Juneau. He said blankets are difficult to make and the materials needed to make them like bearded seal skins are difficult to acquire. Thus, there isn’t an abundance of them in the state, let alone south of the Arctic Circle.

Shannon Hawkins, lead official for this weekend’s Traditional Games, borrowed the blanket from WEIO, an annual Alaska Native sporting festival that counts the blanket toss as one of its events. In the blanket toss, athletes are judged for the height and style in which they jump, as well as whether they land on their feet. Many contestants can do front flips and back flips.

“I think getting as much exposure between NYO and WEIO is great for any event,” Hawkins said.


• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nainsworth@juneauempire.com. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.


Senior Ashton Oyloe is thrown into the air by fellow students during a blanket toss demonstration at Thunder Mountain High School on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Senior Ashton Oyloe is thrown into the air by fellow students during a blanket toss demonstration at Thunder Mountain High School on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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