Published on August 2, 2011 by Amy
Although these are called “Winter Olympics” they are held in Mid-July or early August in Fairbanks, Alaska. The first Eskimo Olympics began in 1961, two years after Alaska became a state. How, why and who started it?
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Alaskans have always had a tradition of occasionally getting together to play games. These games were meant to test certain qualities needed to survive in the harsh climate they lived in, where hunting food was necessary no matter how extreme the weather. So, people from small villages would get together, usually during Christmastime, to informally compete. They also did cultural events such as dancing, storytelling and feasting.
Over 40 years ago, a pilot for Wien Airlines kept seeing these traditional sports get-togethers while he traveled across the state. He was worried these games would disappear so he convinced his employer and the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce to include these games as part of the city’s annual Golden Days Celebration. Frank Whaley was the pilot. And, in 1961 the games became a part of the celebration. Nine years later, the Tundra Times, Alaska’s only native newspaper took over the sponsorship of the event. When they did, they also changed the name to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics to reflect the wide range of native people participating in the games. The late A. E. “Bud” Hagberg, also co-chaired the first several events with Frank Whaley. Other pilots, Bill English and late Tom Richards, Sr. served as the emcees.
A lot of the contests are the same as those in the Arctic Winter Games, such as the Knuckle Hop, arm pull, Ear Pull, High Jump and Toe Kicks. These contests challenge the participants pain endurances, balance skills and agility, or are associated with skills needed for hunting and whaling, like the Blanket Toss. Other contests are to test a participant’s brute strength that is needed to haul seals and other animals through holes n the ice.
From 1961 to 1969, only men competed in these games. Then in 1970′s and 1980′s. In 1998 women placed First, Second and Third in the Ear Weight, a contest in which competitors lift weights that are attached to their ears by loops of twine. (Ouch!!) They must lift the weights by standing up as straight as they can and then move forward over the greatest distance possible. In addition to the athletic contests, they also have fish-cutting and seal-cutting contests, a Native Baby Contest (both mother and child appear in tribal costumes), an Eskimo dance contest and the very popular Miss WEIO Pageant.
Through these past 40+ years, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics have increased in popularity and drawn larger crowds of spectators. They’ve also continued to increase in their record-breaking accomplishments. It is no longer sponsored by The Tundra Times. Instead, there is now a non-profit, independent organization dedicated to planning, organizing, promoting and running this event. These games may be strange to some of us. But, the organizers work hard to present these games as an important connection to the survival of a culture, rich in history, stories, and spirituality.