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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Alaska's Own Olympic Tradition

by Indian Country Today

Young DancerFAIRBANKS, Alaska - Alaska’s Olympic history reaches back several thousand years.

Every July, Fairbanks hosts the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), a four-day series of traditional Alaska Native athletic competitions and dances. WEIO draws Native athletes and dancers from around the state, the United States and Canada, as well as visitors, fans and media from around the globe. The 42nd WEIO Games are scheduled for July 16 - 19.

The competitions at the Olympics not only provide entertainment, but give men and women the chance to test their strength, discipline and endurance - all qualities that are needed to survive in a harsh and often unforgiving climate. All the WEIO events, from the fish cutting competition to the greased pole walk, serve this purpose. For instance, fast yet careful fish cutters were sometimes needed to process a plentiful fish run before spoilage could occur. A walk on a birch pole slathered with bear grease was good practice for walking in precarious situations such as checking a fish wheel on the river.

One of the most popular and difficult games, the two-foot high kick, also reflects this kind of practical origin. Competitors leap into the air from a standing position, keeping both feet together at all times, and kick a softball-sized sealskin ball perched on a string up to eight feet high. Both feet must touch the floor simultaneously upon landing. This game originated in coastal whaling villages, when hunters would jump and kick both feet in the air after taking a whale as a signal to villagers in the distance to come help with the catch.

Besides being a time to test strength and endurance, WEIO is also a time to don parkas, moosehide dresses and vests, mukluks and moccasins to compete in parka and Indian dress contests. It is also a time to dance and tell stories through songs and motion. Dressed in kuspuks - traditional summer parkas - complete with feathered fans and drums, dancers perform throughout the four-day Olympics. Winners of the dance competition perform again on the last night of the event.

Singers with their drumsAlthough the events themselves developed over many years, WEIO was created in 1961 in response to the rapidly spreading impact of western culture into rural areas. Two bush pilots, the late A.E. "Bud" Hagberg and Frank Whaley, witnessed the Native games and dances in their village travels. They grew concerned that the traditional events would be lost as western ways seeped into the villages, unless steps were taken to preserve them. They helped organize the first Olympics, which included a blanket toss, a seal-skinning contest, and a Miss Eskimo-Olympics Queen contest.

The event has since grown to over 50 games, with an ever-increasing number of athletes. For the competitors, WEIO is a chance to meet old friends and distant relatives, to entertain and be entertained, to challenge one another and to engage in friendly competition. For some competitors, it is the only tie to their heritage and a means of ensuring that their culture is celebrated.

For visitors, it’s a chance to see unparalleled feats of endurance and agility. It is also a chance to browse through booths of authentic Alaska Native crafts, and meet the people who carved, sewed, wove or beaded the items. WEIO provides visitors the rare chance to experience a culture alongside those who live within it.

Every year WEIO coincides with Golden Days, Fairbanks’ annual summer celebration of its Gold Rush heritage, providing locals and visitors a variety of activities to choose from.

To learn more about the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics or for more information on Fairbanks, request a free copy of the Fairbanks Visitors Guide from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 327-5774 or (907) 456-5774 or write to 550 First Avenue, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701. The guide can also be ordered at

Fairbanks, AK Map

Maps by Travel

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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