Monday, April 27, 2009

The Eskimo Olympics

Blanket TossI'm sure you're aware of the history of the Olympics--how the Greeks liked to strip down and wow each other with their prowess at running, throwing and jumping while naked? I guess that's what happens when you live someplace that's warm and balmy all year long and men get together to show off.

Well here in Alaska we have our own version of the Olympics but which involves considerably more clothing.

In 1961 in Fairbanks the first World Eskimo Olympics was born as a way to preserve some of games and competitions the Native people of Alaska have played for centuries and just as the original Greek Olympics honored the skills it took to stay alive in ancient Greece the Eskimo Olympics represent the skills admired among the Native peoples.

Now besides the official World Eskimo-Indian Olympics which are held every March in Fairbanks there are also the Native Youth Olympics held every April in Anchorage and various other games events during the year. Forget the 100 meter dash and the high jump--these events tend to meld the physical prowess of the traditional Olympics with the entertainment of the Peking Acrobats. But everyone has their clothes on.

One Arm ReachIn the summertime we often have "Family Olympics" where we get together in the back yard with the kids and play our own version of the Olympics. I'm thinking that maybe this summer we need to do a Native Alaskan version and incorporate some of these new events.

The kids would have a great time trying out their Eskimo Skills.

If you happen to attend sometime here's what you can expect.

The One Arm Reach
With one elbow in your stomach and your hand on the floor balance your body parallel to the floor while reaching up to touch a ball high above you. You must touch the ball and bring your hand back down to the floor before any other part of your body touches the ground. Truly a Jackie Chan move.

One Foot High KickThe One-Foot High Kick
Stand with both feet on the ground. Jump up into the air and with one foot kick a ball that can be as high as a basketball net then land on that same foot you just kicked with.

Yea. It's tough. This is really the "premier" event at the W.E.I.O. (World Eskimo-Indian Olympics) and supposedly it came from the time when hunters would signal to others of a successful whale hunt by jumping high into the air. Yes I know cell phones would have been easier but would they have looked so cool?

Toe KickThe Toe Kick
Stand with your feet together and a one-inch diameter rod on the ground in front of you. Jump forward enough to kick the stick with your toes but kick it backwards as you jump forward. You have to land ahead of the point where the stick was at the beginning.

As the competition progresses the stick is moved farther and farther away so the distance you have to cover is longer and longer while still having the balance and agility to kick the stick backward with your toes as you fly by.

Four Man CarryThe Four-Man Carry
I really should enter this event because I swear I've done it before and it pretty much is what it appears to be. One guy carrying four.

You can train by getting your kids to jump on your back or legs while you walk around the house--I swear I've learned to vacuum with children wrapped around my ankles so I should be a natural at this one.

Wrist CarryThe Wrist Carry
This one is a harder on the carried rather than the carrier.

Wrap your wrist around a pole like a hook and hold on tight to your forearm while two people carry you, the object being to travel the longest distance without crying "uncle."

Be sure to remove your wrist watch first.

Alaskan High KickThe Alaskan High Kick
I personally think this one of the coolest ones. Balance on one hand and your opposite foot. Hold the other foot with your free hand then with your balancing foot jump up into the air and kick a ball high above you and balance once again when you finally get back to earth.

I don't care if you're all about yoga and tae kwon do--this is hard to do. As with most of these moves this one emphasizes balance and strength which the hunters valued while searching for food on the ice packs.

Knuckle HopThe Knuckle Hop
Long before break dancing was popular Native Alaskans were playing this game mimicking the way a seal moves across the ice.

Lay on the floor with your hands flat in front of you, you weight on your toes. Lift yourself off of the floor and hop on your flat hands and toes and you've got the general idea. Not nearly as easy as the picture would indicate. And you don't want to be wearing a skirt.

Ear PullThe Ear Pull
This one is kind of hard to watch. You take a long cord with a loop at one end and a 16-pound weight on the other then loop the one end around your ear and have at it.

You can't rest the weight against your cheek and you have to walk as far as you can with that thing swinging from your sagging ear. Before they had nice little compact weights they used 25-pound sacks of flour and could go as far as 2,000 feet. Ugh.

Leave the earrings home.

"Drop the Bomb"
I've wondered where this game got it's name because it's obviously not of Native origins but the object is to race in four-person teams.

If you want to play the difficult part of the bomb then lie face-down on the floor with your arms outstretched side to side and your feet together. One of your team mates grabs your ankles, one your right wrist and one your left wrist. You get as stiff as you can while they raise you one foot off the floor and try to carry you as far as they can before you give out, sag and they "drop the bomb" (i.e. you).

The Blanket Toss (Nalukataq)
This is the picture you see at the top and it's probably the quintessential picture from Alaska--what most people see in their minds when they think of Alaska.

No matter, it's a fun image--better than picturing a bear devouring a biker or a moose isn't it? And as a kid growing up before trampolines were everywhere this always seemed like the most fun anyone could have and it is still very much a Native tradition that you can see at most events such as Fur Rendezvous.

Photographs courtesy of AP.

Sponsored by Starlooks Boutique for high-quality, made in the USA clothing for children.


Robin said...

What cool events - I've always wanted to see a blanket toss, but I'd never heard of all those high kick stunts before. The ear thing sort of creeps me out though, not sure I could watch that.

Laurie said...

How very interesting. Our school in Tegucigalpa recently participated in a intraschool competition that was styled as "the High School Olympics." It was great fun. The activities were standard but the culture shined through in so many ways that I should blog about it. For one thing, every winner was mobbed on the field by admiring fans, delaying each new event. The event was supposed to last four hours, but I left after five, knowing the events were going to stretch well into eight or more. Time is an interesting concept in Central America. They like speeches, too. Every director, official and wannabe important somebody had to give an oratorical address before we began each round.

Melissa B. said...

I was watching this on cable yesterday...unbelieveable! And about the Greeks & the Naked Olympics...don't you think that was a tad uncomfortable? Just saying. Hey, I'm singing your praises today. Thanks for Blogging in Pink. Post AND Tweeted you. Thanks!

Summer said...

Those are all very awesome. I love to watch amazing feats of strength and agility!

jacjewelry said...

I don't know what sounds harder - the One Arm Reach or the Four-Man Carry. The Blanket Toss looks like it'd be fun! And I don't know about the Ear Pull...

Great-Granny Grandma said...

Loved reading this post. Such cool events that I've never heard of before. Would love to actually get to see them.

Annette Lyon said...

Ho-Ly OW!

Amber M. said...

I remember doing some of these during PE in elementary school. Of course, not the REALLY hard ones, but we did try some of them. AND we did them with our clothes on:-).

The Source said...

OUCH! Some of those look very painful! The blanket toss looks fun, but the wrist and ear events...oh my!

Melanie O said...

These are so cool and what a great way to preserve part of a culture. I have to say, I laughed out loud at the four man carry. Yes, I've been there too, especially if you count carrying the diaper bag, miscellaneous stuffed animals, sippy cups, unworn jackets, a screaming baby and a clingy toddler across a busy parking lot. Or, maybe that should be a new game in the mother-of-young-children olympics!

Patois said...

What fun descriptions!

cndymkr / jean said...

Wow. Just WOW. How beautiful and yet painful looking. The strength and balance needed for any one of these events is mind blowing. Alaskans are a tough bunch.

Babystepper said...

I would love to see a video of almost all of those. I think you can probably guess which one I am not interested in watching.

It involves, you know, ears. Ouch!

planetnomad said...

I loved this post!

Heart2Heart said...


Love to hear about different things going on in other places around the world and here at home.

Can't believe how incredibly strong and focused these people must be to compete in these events.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Fawn said...

Great post, Michelle -- that's a good thorough coverage of the games! I got to witness them when I lived in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island in Nunavut) and it's amazing what people can do.

I still can't get over the use of the word "Eskimo", though! I mean, I know that's what the native people of Alaska call themselves, but in the Eastern arctic, it's a huge no-no.

Scribbit said...

Fawn--I understand in Canada it's considered an insulting term but here it's pretty legitimate. Though personally I never say "Eskimo" just because it's not really accurate to describe most of the Native people here though I used it as the real term for the games since that's what they're listed as.

Always fun to see language differences huh?

Kelly said...

Wow, I came for the free e-book and stayed for the Eskimo Olympics! So many kinds of jumps - fascinating!

Jill in MA said...

Very cool! Thanks for sharing!

Maddy said...

Ear pulling? Pull the other one it's got bells on. As I'm not sure whether that translates in either Alaskan or American I can only ask how you get on with Etsy?C

jubilee said...

So very interesting. Some of those sound truly painful, but fun to watch.

Jennifer said...

I really wasn't taking the post seriously at first, figuring it was just you being funny about some pictures you found online. About halfway through, I realized you might be writing seriously, and then, it was much more interesting!

Serena said...

Alaskans sure know how to have fun. I wouldn't want to mess with anyone who can do those things! The strength it must take...

Serena said...

Oh, are these all pictures you've taken?

Janet said...

This is fascinating. I'm tempted to try a couple of them. Under cover of darkness with no one around of course. And the cell phone set for 911.

aeireck said...

Wow!!!Alaska does really have unique and amazing Olympics. Everyone does really enjoy that Olympic game...