©Bert Gildart: After seeing the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska, henceforth everything else in life may be anticlimactic. From the Two-foot High Kick, the crowning of the new Miss WEIO, the incredible dance performances, the Seal Skinning contest… to the Eskimo Ear Pull, life these past few days has almost been surreal.
A stoic Andrew Walker does well in Eskimo Ear Pull but doesn't win.
While we’ve been here, records have been broken, and these aren’t easy contests in which to compete. Try skinning a seal in less than four minutes. Try jumping forward on one leg, then jumping high on the same leg to kick a ball that has been placed about five feet in the air.
Once the kick served as a message to hunting or whaling crews. In days of old if a runner saw a whale, he would leap high into the air on one foot, sending a message to other hunters that a whale or caribou had been seen.
The contest also tests a person’s agility, and if you think it is easy, try jumping in place on one foot three times in a row. That may not be tremendously hard, but now try something similar. Try leaping high into the air on, say, the right foot. Then, while in the air try kicking a suspended ball with the right foot; and, finally, before doing anything with your left foot, try landing ON THE SAME FOOT!
KEEPER OF THE FLAME
The Olympics began with Andrew Marks and Delilah DeWilde running their Olympic torch into the Carlson Center. After trotting around the arena, they proceeded to a table where Blanche Vest of Kotzbue, the “Keeper of the Flame,” sat waiting. Lighting the wick, which consisted of seal oil and tundra moss, the games officially began. Later, Blanche told me that several hundred years ago Eskimos and Indians would be fighting.
“Now look at us!” she exclaimed. “Sure we’re competing hard, but we’re friendly and all that.”
Janie Synder uses Ulu to skin seal.
Dancing followed, and groups representing each of the six major Alaskan tribes did so with grace and often power. Brandon Johnson, a Tlingit Indian from Yakutat, said the dances told stories of the trees, the animals… the ravens. He said everything was in motion and that dances reflected “… the constant flow of life.”
STRENGTH AND COORDINATION
Events were many and some of the first events were descriptively entitled: the One-hand Reach, the Kneel Jump and the Toe Kick, a particularly difficult event which requires participants to leap forward, kick a stick backward–which has been precisely positioned on the floor–but doing so while still in motion.
Finally, the athlete must propel himself yet further forward. It’s an event requiring great coordination and strength.
In various ways, one of the most challenging events was one form of the several types of high kicks, difficult for contestants and difficult for me as a first-time photo journalist to WEIO.
Trying to capture contestants in mid air as they stretch out torsos, legs and toes–focusing as they must do on a tiny ball, which they must set into motion–is difficult to capture, and certainly to perform.
Paradoxically, two events that attracted some of the most interest were the most brutal. One, the Seal Skinning contest, tested a person’s speed in removing the hide, and Charles Brown was the winner of that event.
CLICK EACH IMAGE TO SEE LARGE PHOTO–AND OLYMPIC FORM. L to R: Manny Curtis; Sharlane King; Elijah Cabinboy, who set a new world record in another event–the Alaskan High Kick.
He removed the entire skin from a seal with an Ulu in 2 minutes and 24 seconds! Try gutting and skinning a pike in that time and you’ll get a sense of these contestants’ abilities.
The other event that brought gasps from the crowd was the Ear Pull (top photo), an event in which two people sit down in front of one another and then loop a bit of string-like seal gut (similar to waxed dental floss–so you, too, can try it!) around one anothers ears. A tug of war begins and if the pain is too intense you concede by flicking your head releasing the gut from around your ear. The contest measure your ability to withstand the harsh realities of the frozen north.
Dora Umara Buchea and her caribou masks represent a Native art form at its very best. Our next posting will describe a few other art forms.
Though the ceremonies concluded last night, I’ll be posting another blog or two about WEIO. It has left us awed and a bit humbled, and I’d like to try to explain further why we have been so enthralled.
THIS TIME TWO YEARS AGO:
*Preparing to Climb Mount Rainier
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