Nearly 500 high school students from 50 Alaska communities are coming to Anchorage from April 29 to May 1 to compete in the Native Youth Olympics at the Dena’ina Center. The NYO Games, as they’re now called, is open to Natives and non-Natives from the 7th grade to seniors in high school. It’s an event that showcases Alaska’s cultural heritage, based on games that past Alaska Natives played to help them hone their survival skills and form the necessary communion between mind and body that was required to survive the state’s rugged, oft-brutal terrain and weather.
The NYO Games celebrate the fundamental skills that Alaska Natives built upon from early adolescence through adulthood. The competitions were used to test their hunting and survival skills, to increase their strength and endurance, and to create agility both in their physical bodies as well as in their minds.
Let’s take a look at some of the events that will be featured in the 41st NYO Games and their relationship to the skills Natives needed to survive in the wilds of Alaska:
The Eskimo Stick Pull: This is a game of strength, based upon the needs of the hunters who had to be strong enough to pull a seal out of freezing water. Two athletes sit facing each other and pull on a stick, each trying to pull their opponent toward him without jerking the stick. Much like tug-of-war, the muscle groups required to excel at the Eskimo Stick Pull are far more then just arm strength. One must have strong hands, back and leg strength, as well as balance. Pulling a seal from icy water while balancing yourself on snow and ice wasn’t easy, the Eskimo Stick Pull, while surely easier then that effort, is still a great test of strength.
The One-Hand Reach: A hunter in a kayak had to have great body control. Tipping your canoe could lead to frostbite, among other disasters. This event is a test of a competitor’s body control in this spirit, as they’re asked to hold their body wait up with just one hand pressed on the floor.
The Wrist Carry: This event is based on very origins of Native Alaska hunting. Hunters had to work on not only their strength, but endurance, as they were required to carry heavy game over long distances. In the Wrist Carry, a competitor has his wrist draped over a stick and has to hold him or herself off the ground while two teammates carry the competitor as far as possible around an oval track until he or she can no longer hold on.
The Alaskan High Kick: Considered the most acrobatic event in the competition, a competitor has to kick a ball suspended overhead while balancing on a single hand. This requires mind-body control, managing to keep yourself balanced in preparation for, and throughout, the kick. The competitor who kicks the highest target wins.
The Seal Hop: A competition of pure endurance, with athletes hopping across the floor using only their hands and toes, essentially doing pushups, one after another, with the person traveling the farthest distance winning. This game originated with the hunters who imitated the movements of seals.
The One-Foot High Kick: The headline event of the games, competitors jump off both feet in an attempt to kick a ball suspended high in the air with one foot, landing on that same foot. Last year’s event was won by Anchorage’s Andrew Walker, who kicked 104 inches (8’8″), while Wasila’s Alice Strick won on the girl’s side and set a world record, kicking at 91 inches.
The NYO Games are hosted by Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Inc., a nonprofit social service agency for Cook Inlet Region, Inc. For more information on the games, click here.