Native games link back to culture

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

Picture, if you will, an arctic winter day hundreds of years ago when Yup'ik Eskimo men gathered in the Qasgiq -- or men's house, where all the unmarried men lived -- to while away a stormy day with some athletic competition.

They'd take turns having two men sit in front of each other, each grabbing with both hands a piece of wood in an effort to pull the stick away from the other. The game not only passed the time during the long and often brutal winters, but it also helped train the men for their subsistence hunting. The game used many of the same muscles the men would use when pulling a seal from out of the ice.

Fast forward to Thursday, when Ricardo Worl sat across from Skyler Mazon and demonstrated the game, called the Eskimo stick pull, to a small group of spectators as part of the University of Alaska Southeast's Winterfest Celebration. Worl and Mazon, a pair of Tlingits who both grew up in Juneau, were demonstrating many of the games common to competitions such as the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, the Native Youth Olympics and the Arctic Winter Games to a group of Native and non-Native students.

As they demonstrated the games, Worl and Mazon explained some of the history behind each of the tests of strength, agility and endurance of pain.

``I didn't know the history when I was younger,'' said Mazon, 19, who started competing in the games as a fourth-grader. ``I didn't know the history, like in the stick pull. I was just competing.''


During the brief event Thursday, Worl and Mazon demonstrated events such as the scissors board jump (an intricate four-step jump used to skip from ice floe to ice floe), the one-foot and two-foot high kicks (which were used by whaling crews to signal each other from the beach that a whale had been taken and help was needed in bringing the animal to shore for butchering) and the knuckle hop (used by seal hunters to get closer to seals out on the ice).

Worl, 38, who has lived in Anchorage and Barrow where the tests of skill are popular, said many of the games they demonstrated are relatively new to Southeast Alaska, where a more popular event would be canoe races featuring crews of 10-12 paddlers. But, even though the dozen or so events Worl and Mazon demonstrated are more typically found in the Yup'ik and Inupiat Eskimo cultures, Worl said the games are good for all Alaska Natives to learn.

``In urban areas, competing in these games becomes an important event to identify with your Native culture,'' said Worl, whose brother Rodney holds the world record for the knuckle hop set in 1986.

``This is another way for us to learn what the reasons are for these sports,'' said Patty Adkisson, who serves as coordinator of rural and Native student services at UAS. ``This shows we have other sides to our survival skills besides just sitting in front of a computer.''

In other parts of the state, especially in rural Alaska, the Native games are THE popular spring sport for high school students. Hundreds of students head to Anchorage at the end of each April for the statewide Native Youth Olympics, many having advanced from school to school district competitions for the right to represent their district at the state meet.

The Native Youth Olympics has even attracted students from Indian schools in Wisconsin and Arizona, but the only team from Southeast that regularly competes in the event is from Mount Edgecumbe. Worl said the last time a team from Juneau attended the statewide Native Youth Olympics was in 1989. Because of school budget cuts, Worl said if a Juneau team were to travel again the program would have to be sponsored by a tribal group such as the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

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