While the international Olympic Summer Games are getting started in Tokyo this weekend, Fairbanks, Alaska, is hosting the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, as they have every year since 1961 …except for 2020. The return of the games this year is particularly exciting. People of all ages will compete in feats of strength and skill that harken back to a traditional way of life such as the ear pull, blanket toss, fish cutting, knuckle hop, greased pole walk, four-man carry, Alaskan high kick, and the Indian stick pull.
In 1961, two commercial airline pilots, Bill English and Tom Richards, Sr., who flew for the now-defunct Wien Air Alaska, were flying back and forth to some of the state’s outlying communities. During these visits, they watched Alaska Natives perform dances and other physical activities, such as the blanket toss, an event where 30 or more people hold a blanket made of hides and toss one person in the air. The goal is to remain balanced and land on one’s feet. (The event stems from the Iñupiaq, an indigenous group from northern Alaska, who would use a blanket to toss a hunter in the air as a way to see over the horizon during hunts.)
“They [English and Richards] had a true appreciation for what they were witnessing and knew that these activities were something that people in the rest of the state should see for themselves to get a better understanding of the value of traditions happening outside Alaska’s big cities,” says Gina Kalloch, chairwoman of the WEIO board who is Koyukon Athabascan.
Read about some of the WEIO events and how they descended from traditional indigenous culture at Smithsonian. The 2021 competitions are going on now through Saturday.
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