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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 27, 2002 - Issue 66


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Blanket Toss More Than Spectacle

by Beth Bragg Anchorage Daily News
credits: Up, Up and Away by Barbara Lavallee
Fairbanks, AK - Think of "nalukatuq" -- the Eskimo word for blanket toss -- as snowboarding without snow or figure skating without French judges. A modern-day translator might define it this way: Kiss the sky, dude.

Daring tricks, big air, stylish presentation and expressive attire are all part of the action. Part trampoline, part halfpipe and all adrenaline, the blanket toss is proof that in Alaska, extreme sports are woven into the fabric of everyday life, not something invented five minutes ago for ESPN.

Thrills and chills came in all assortments Thursday night in the men's preliminary competition at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Seventeen-year-old Jared Pickett of Anchorage pulled off a perfect axel jump -- 11/2 rotations -- during one of his turns on the blanket.

Art Oomittuk, an artist from Barrow and a former gold medalist in the sport, wore mukluks and a pair of Eskimo sunglasses he carved from a piece of cedar for his turn. He scored big for presentation but not so well for technical merit: He landed on his butt after executing a mid-air bicycle motion.

First-time participant Dennis Gould of Anchorage -- a hockey player wearing a Jamaican bobsled T-shirt -- looked like a blowfish as he held his breath and closed his eyes in midflight.

Jumpers can soar as high as 40 feet in the blanket toss. The most polished do somersaults and spins.

No one managed to touch the 35-foot ceiling at the Big Dipper Arena here Thursday, but many came close -- including rookie Rusty Meyer of Palmer.

"You get a lot of air time," he said. "It was a blast."

Meyer snowboards at Hatcher Pass and catches his share of air there. But the blanket toss is an even bigger rush, he said.

Nowhere else in the world will you see the blanket toss, said Big Bob Aiken of Barrow as he introduced Thursday's competition.

In villages on Alaska's northern and western coasts, the blanket toss began as a way to celebrate the landing of a bowhead whale. It serves the same purpose today in places like Point Hope, while at events like WEIO and Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous it is a crowd-pleasing cultural touchstone.

"The people up in Point Hope have a three-day whaling feast, and on the last day is dancing and the blanket toss," said 21-year-old Reggie Joule III of Kotzebue, the most graceful jumper in Thursday's preliminaries. "The whaling captain will jump first, then his wife, then his dependents and then his crew."

It takes a village to make a blanket-toss. The blanket is made from the skins of walruses or bearded seals. They are sewn into a big circle, and a heavy rope is threaded around the rim. Forty or 50 people clutch the rope and pull up and down. They are the springs of a centuries-old trampoline.

As they pull, the blanket makes a rhythmic whooshing sound.

"It's just like your heartbeat," Joule III said.

A jumper is lifted onto the blanket and bounces to the beat for a few moments. Then one of the pullers counts to three. On the fourth beat, the pullers lift the jumper into the air.

"You have to be really calm," said 13-year-old Lorenzo Ridley of Anchorage. "You don't jump or anything. You just let them lift you."

Noel Gould of Anchorage is a somewhat reluctant participant. "I do this to face some kind of fear," she said. "It took me two years to come back after the last time. I hit my knees into my chest when I landed, and I was bruised."

But the exhilaration of the blanket toss lured her back.

"Once you're up there," Gould said, "it's the coolest feeling in the world."

Joule III calls it a free ride. "Everyone else is working," he said.

Joule III looks like a natural on the blanket, which isn't surprising. His dad is the Jonny Moseley of the blanket toss.

"I'm nothing like my old man," Joule III said.

Fifty-year-old Reggie Joule has won 10 gold medals at WEIO and once demonstrated the sport on the Tonight Show. He's been retired from competition for more than a decade, but he is still the master of this domain, as he proved Thursday in a demonstration during which he turned somersaults, caught big air and showed a stylishness no one else came close to duplicating.

While jumpers like Joule evoke oohs and aahs from onlookers, the pullers are the heart of the sport. Should the jumper stray while in the air, it is up to the pullers to move the blanket in order to catch him. They do this in one swift movement, as if one mind commands them.

At times, however, the pullers aren't swift enough.

"My first time, I missed the skin totally and a Catholic priest caught me," the older Joule said. "I was done with the blanket toss at that point. I was scared. When I thanked him and turned to walk away, the people had put the skin on the ground so I walked right on it without knowing it and they started pulling."

Call it divine intervention -- by both the priest and the pullers who quickly lofted the young Joule back into the air. His fear was conquered, and a career still unmatched had begun.

Not that it was smooth soaring from that point on.

"I broke my leg in '76," Joule said. "I was being greedy. I already had my three jumps and I asked for a fourth. On my way down, (the pullers) went moving one way and I went moving the other way and I hit the edge of the skin. It pitched me out and I was headed for the ground with my head and then a man caught me and cradled my shoulders."

Joule said he retired because 10 gold medals is enough. But he still has a goal when he gets on a blanket. He wants to make an impression on younger participants. He wants to inspire -- and intimidate.

"When I jump on the skin and do what I do, they know there's a standard they should develop," Joule said.

Joule, who just finished his sixth year as a member of Alaska's House of Representatives and once coaxed Newt Gingrich to try the blanket toss in Barrow, sees the sport as sort of a metaphor for life.

"Everybody's gotta pull together to make things happen," Joule said.

Sort of like in politics in Juneau, he was asked?

"If only," he said with a smile.

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