WEIO merges sports, culture

Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The rhythmic clapping started about halfway through and built to a crescendo with every step Michael Paulsen took.

Arms clasped behind his back, Paulsen shuffled around a measured course drawn onto the floor at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks. Paulsen walked with a bent-forward lean and a stride that went as much side to side as forward, somewhat like the stride of a distance speed skater or Groucho Marx. The only difference was a string draped over his left ear holding 16 one-pound lead ingots.

Paulsen was competing in the ear weight carry at the 1998 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, and he was approaching the "unbeatable" record in the event, one of WEIO's most masochistic tests of endurance, agility and strength. And he was still going.

With every step the roar of the crowd increased as Paulsen, a former Marine from Anchorage and a Cup'ik Eskimo whose mother comes from the Nunivak Island village of Mekoryuk, walked the roughly 200-foot course. During the event, the string began to slip on Paulsen's ear, slowly pulling the ear together into a white nub as his circulation was cut off by the weight.

Finally, during his 15th lap, the string slipped completely off the ear and the weights dropped to the ground. As did Paulsen, who grabbed his ear and writhed in pain. A medic ran onto the course to give Paulsen's ear a quick check, then handed him a bag of ice.

With the ice pack pressed gingerly to his ear, Paulsen stood waiting for his mark. He'd carried the weights 2,886 feet, 10 inches, more than half a mile. He'd broken the 15-year-old record set by Barrow's Josh Okpik by more than 100 feet.

I've covered the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics a few times over the years, and Paulsen's 1998 performance easily is one of the most memorable. Paulsen returned in 1999 for a shot at breaking his own record, but fell just short with a distance of 2,851 feet, 9 inches - which still won by more than 1,800 feet.

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, frequently called WEIO (pronounced Wee-Oh), are one of Alaska's little-known sporting gems. The 43rd edition of WEIO opens today in Fairbanks and continues through Saturday. They're definitely worth a look for any Alaska sports fan.

WEIO combines many of the athletic contests used by Alaska Natives to prepare themselves for the subsistence lifestyle with cultural events such as dancing, Native dress pageants and contests such as seal skinning, fish cutting and muktuk eating. Many Alaska Native villages held their own festivals, and it was those festivals that the laid the groundwork for WEIO.

In the late 1950s, Frank Whaley and H.E. "Bud" Hagberg were pilots for now-defunct Wien Airways and they'd seen a few of these contests during their travels around the state. On one trip, their plane developed a mechanical problem so they watched the Christmas games in Point Hope while waiting for parts to be flown in to fix the plane.

They and fellow pilots Bill English and Tom Richards Sr. were worried the games might be lost as more non-Natives arrived in Alaska. So the four pilots organized the World Eskimo Olympics with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and the event was added to the city's 1961 Golden Days Celebration. The name was changed to WEIO the next year and they've been held ever since.

In 1986, former Juneau Empire reporter Annabel Lund and former Juneau Empire photographer Mark Kelley published a book called "Heartbeat" that details a lot of the history and origins of the games. Copies of that book are still available in some local bookstores. WEIO also is one of the roots for the Native Youth Olympics, which takes place each year in Anchorage, and for the Arctic sports events in the biennial Arctic Winter Games.

Almost all of these Native games can trace their origins to some part of the subsistence hunting and fishing lifestyle.

Some of the links are obvious, such as the greased pole walk which simulates a person having to maintain his or her balance as they walk on river-soaked logs leading out to the fish trap or the four-man carry which simulates the carrying of meat after a successful hunt. Others are less obvious, such as the one- and two-foot high kicks which were used as signals between spotters to let the village know a whaling party had taken a whale and the other villagers needed to come help the whalers beach the whale for butchering.

While Paulsen was competing in the ear weight carry, announcer and WEIO legend "Big Bob" Aiken of Barrow told spectators the game was designed to test a person's ability to withstand pain, because if a hunter has an accident in Alaska's wildnerness that hunter may have to find his own way back to his village.

The games have their legends - like Aiken, who dominated the Eskimo stick pull and Indian stick pull events before he retired from competition in 1992. Aiken, an Iñupiat who called himself the world's largest Eskimo at 6-foot-4 and more than 400 pounds when he competed, isn't so big anymore - he lost about 100 pounds because of health reasons - but he's still involved as a coach and announcer.

Robert Okpeaha Jr. of Barrow has been given the nickname "Cast Iron Ears" because he's won 18 of the last 19 titles (he missed WEIO one year) in the ear pull, an event where two competitors face each other, drape a string over their ears and try to slowly pull a string off their opponent's ear.

And then there's Eagle River's Nicole Johnston - Johnson before she married - a longtime coach and competitor who's still winning the women's two-foot high kick as she approaches her 40s and has had a couple of kids. And Carol Pickett of Fairbanks, another 40-something competitor who won the 1989 Alaska Sportsperson of the Year Award over musher Susan Butcher and Olympic skiers Hilary Lindh, Nina Kemppel and Tommy Moe.

There also are some new kids bringing new blood to the games. Bradley Weyiouanna of Shishmaref started competing at WEIO when he was a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and he's won five H.E. "Bud" Hagberg Sportsmanship Awards since 1998.

I haven't been to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics since 1999, just before I moved to Juneau, and I miss their relaxed pace and the camaraderie the competitors have with each other, even to the point where one athlete might give fellow competitors coaching tips that could cost the first athlete a medal.

WEIO is one of Alaska's hidden treasures. If you're ever in Fairbanks in mid-July, you definitely should check out the games.

• Charles Bingham can be reached at charles.bingham@juneauempire.com.

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