Youth teams from as far as Wasilla and Chickaloon gathered to compete in three days of traditional Alaskan Native games at the Native Youth Olympics Winter Games Invitational, held Friday through Sunday at Kenai Middle School. The events include a variety of games that involve jumping, flexibility, balance, endurance, and strength. They arose from the traditions of several Alaskan cultures.
“There’s so many different games that there’s a game for every kid, either physically or mentally, that they can do no matter what size they are,” said Nichole Johnston, a volunteer official at this weekend’s games. “The games help them survive everyday life and teach sportsmanship and community.”
Johnston, a former record-holder in the two foot high jump, has been competing in traditional games in 1981. She said she was introduced to them during her childhood in Nome, first in church and then in school. Johnston’s school had its own Native Youth Olympic team. Some competitors at this weekend’s event said they were introduced to them through school. Johnston said the games are included in some school physical education programs, mostly in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and Native Villages along the northern coast. The games are more prevalent in middle school P.E than in high school, she said, due to the tighter state standards high school classes are subject to.
Michael Bernard, the Kenaitze Tribe’s Youth Programs Coordinator, said the games aren’t part of P.E for most schools on the peninsula. The Kenaitze Tribe-sponsored team found its members through advertising in the community, and the team usually practices about two days a week, starting around August or September, and continues until May.
“Any young person that wants to be on the team can come in, and we’ll accept them and teach them how to do it,” Bernard said.
Nick Hanson, an Arctic Winter Games athlete and competitor on the fitness game show “American Ninja Warrior,” volunteered at the Kenai Invitational. He said specific training for the games is essential.
“The best way to train for these games is to do these games, honestly,” Hanson said. “You can do jumping programs to get yourself more conditioned for jumping, you can do strength training to get yourself more conditioned for the stick-pull. But the only real way to excel in these games is to do them. You can’t go to the gym and do bicep curls and all of the sudden be really good at one-hand reach. You can’t do box jumps and all of a sudden be really good at two-foot high kick.”
Although the Native Youth Olympics begin in 1971, Hanson said the events that make it up are ancient ones originally created for practical purposes.
“Every game relates to some sort of survival tactic that our ancestors would use to either hunt, fish, or celebrate after a successful day or a successful move, if you’re a nomadic group,” Hanson said.
As examples of a survival game, Hanson gave the seal hop — in which players lie on their bellies and move by hopping on their knuckles — and the stick pull, in which a player tries to pull a stick from another player’s grip.
Both required skills used by Yup’ik Natives to hunt seals, known as oogruk.
“What our ancestors would do is go out on the ice and get as low as they could, and put a seal skin on their back hiding their spear,” Hanson said. “They would hop as low as they could and get as close as they could to a seal in its hole. Then they’d pop up and strike with their spear.”
The line attached to the seal spear would be tied at the opposite end to a perpendicular stick.
“As soon as the seal would dive into the hole after you spear it, you would have your spear stick, and it would stop across the hole,” Hanson said. “You would have to grab that stick and pull it, and that represents the eskimo stick pull. Let’s say you caught an 800 pound oogruk. You would have to pull that swimming oogruk out of that hole yourself… That’s why in the eskimo stick pull, the arm pull, if you’ve got a big guy going up against a little guy, that’s just the way it is. If that little guy catches an 800 pound oogruk, he’s got to be able to fight that guy.”
Celebration games include the one- and two-foot kicks, in which the object is to hit a hanging ball with one or two feet, and the one hand reach, in which players reach for the ball with one hand while balancing their body weight on another.
Hanson said the one-hand reach was played during winters in low-roofed Yup’ik sod houses, where players would reach for the ceiling.
“Because their sod homes were only so tall — your head would be hitting the ceiling — they had to come up with games they could play inside the home. Because you can’t really go out in the winter and do two foot high kick on a tree. So they would play games inside. It would test their balance.”
Although some games such as the stick pull and arm pull involve direct competition against another player, others are skill tests that pit athletes against their own limits. Many, Johnston said, are designed to build endurance along with strength.
“Not just physical endurance, but endurance to pain,” Johnston said. “…Could you really, if you had to put yourself in a situation where you had to survive today, could you do it? Some of (the athletes), I hope, because of the things we’ve taught them, consider that they have the inner strength to do it. A lot of the times, traditionally, you would go out hunting by yourself or with just a few other people, and be gone for days. You had to rely on your strength, and the people that you’re hunting with, to survive and get what you needed and to go where you needed to go.”
Johnston said that beyond the practical skills they test, the games are fundamentally designed to convey values.
“When we teach and when we are taught these games, the most important lesson is that you cannot survive anywhere without the help of somebody else,” Johnston said. “Your survival may depend on somebody else. So you want to make sure that the people you work with and rely on can do the best they possibly can, because that helps your chances of survival, traditionally. These games teach you to try your hardest and do your best, and encourage everybody else to do the same.”
Bernard, who helped organize and host the invitational with the Kenaitze Tribe’s Yaghenen Youth program, said the games continue to serve a social purpose.
“These games for our program at the Tribe are part of a larger program, which is a drug, alcohol, and tobacco prevention program for youth,” Bernard said. “That’s one of the main reasons why we do this. We like to provide a culturally-based activity for the kids that keeps them away from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and provides them with a healthy lifestyle.”
Audience member William Sallaffie, who had come from Anchorage with his daughter, competitor Brittany Sallaffie, agreed that the games are not just games. He said Brittany, a high-schooler, had participated since 6th grade, and by doing so had gained a circle of friends from around the state.
“They get to know people, other students, other athletes,” William Sallaffie said. “Really, it’s about knowing other people for the real world so that basically, they can do life, and not be alone.”