Mara Sheakley-Early competing in the Two-Foot High Kick. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini, SHI Media Department.
By Lyndsey Brollini
One hundred and forty-five athletes from across Alaska, Arizona, and Canada competed in the third annual Traditional Games in Juneau, held March 7-8 at Juneau Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.
Athletes from 14 communities lined up in the athlete parade. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Athletes from 14 different communities attended this statewide event. These communities included Northern Arizona University, Utqiagvik, Nome, Fairbanks, Bethel, Lower Kuskokwim, Anchorage (represented by two teams, including Alaska Pacific University), Whitehorse, Metlakatla, Hydaburg, Ketchikan, Craig, Hoonah, and Juneau (represented by seven teams, including University of Alaska Southeast).
Lyle and Kolene James at the 2020 Traditional Games during their dance performance with Woosh.Ji.Een. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
A little known fact about the name “Traditional Games” is that Lyle and Kolene James, who are both long-time advocates of Native Youth Olympics in Juneau, adopted this name. In addition to reflecting that the games derive from traditional activities, it is also inclusive reflecting the participation of both Native and non-Native youth in the games.
The Jameses previously helped with NYO in schools and at the University of Alaska Southeast. At the university, they held smaller competitive events and called them the Traditional Games.
Kyle Worl, coach of NYO in Juneau and coordinator of the Traditional Games, as well as a gold medalist in a number of the games, promoted the development of NYO teams in middle and high schools in Juneau and throughout Southeast Alaska. He then expanded this event statewide. He also encourages participation at every age, from elementary through the university level.
University of Alaska Southeast Yuraq group performs in the opening ceremony of them 2020 Traditional Games. Yuraq, meaning Yup’ik dance, was a new dance group formed by Kaytlynne Lewis. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
During the opening ceremony of the games, the Yuraq group at the University of Alaska Southeast performed to the crowd and other athletes. After some encouragement, other athletes joined in dancing to the Reindeer Song.
“Eskimo Ninja” Nick Hanson of Unalakleet was the featured speaker at this year’s opening ceremony. Additionally, he served as a coach and official for the first day of the games.
Hanson got his nickname from being Inupiaq and competing on the NBC TV show American Ninja Warrior, but he is also an inspirational speaker for kids throughout Alaska, talking about topics like Alaska Native identity and suicide prevention.
Nick Hanson being launched into the air during Nalukataq, or blanket toss. About 60 pullers are needed to do a blanket toss. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
2020 was the second year that Nalukataq, or blanket toss, was held at the games, and this year, Hanson was the first on the blanket. After a few attempts, the pullers were able to lift him high enough to touch the ceiling of the gym.
“One of the things I love about the blanket toss is that it embodies what the Native games and the Traditional Games are all about,” said Hanson. “Being a family and working together. Being a community working together to lift one person up.”
Hanson experienced this personally when he was in a dark place in his life and people in his village encouraged him to try out for American Ninja Warrior.
“I came from tough times, like many of us from villages and many of us that have grown up in rural Alaska. And it took my entire community to lift me up.”
The events at the Traditional Games include Scissor Broad Jump, Kneel Jump, Wrist Carry, One-Foot High Kick, Dené Stick Pull, Inuit Stick Pull, Two-Foot High Kick, One Hand Reach, Alaskan High Kick, Seal Hop, and Knuckle Hop.
Scissor Broad Jump. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Kneel Jump. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Wrist Carry. Photo by Nobu Koch.
One-Foot High Kick. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Dené Stick Pull. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Inuit Stick Pull. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Two-Foot High Kick. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
One Hand Reach. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Alaskan High Kick. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Seal Hop. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Knuckle Hop. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
All of these games are based off of Indigenous hunting and survival skills in the circumpolar north. The spirit of these games is that athletes support each other, no matter what team, and instead of striving to beat other competitors, the mentality is to achieve one’s own personal best and help others to do the same.
“A unique feature of NYO and what I love about it most is that each athlete is cheering on their competitors,” said Aimée Richards, parent of athlete Leif Richards of the Dzantik’i Héeni Middle School team. “It’s common to see these athletes coach each other in between tries, each supporting the other to achieve their personal best.”
Sara Steeves, left, and Annmarie Paul, right, after competing in the Alaskan High Kick open female event. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
One example of the spirit of the games came after the Alaskan High Kick open female event. Annmarie Paul from Lower Kuskokwim and Sara Steeves from Juneau were both attempting to kick to a new height, and Lyle James asked the gym to be quiet so they could both focus. Since all other categories were complete, the entire gym was silently watching them.
After three attempts, both were unsuccessful in kicking a height higher than 70 inches. After they finished kicking, Steeves went over to hug Paul, one moment of many that showed her sportsmanship and support of other athletes. Steeves would end up winning the sportsmanship award at the end of the Traditional Games, an award voted on by the officials at the games.
Athlete from the Hydaburg team competing in the Two-Foot High Kick Middle School Female event. Hydaburg is a newly formed team and it was their first time attending the Traditional Games. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
One unique aspect of the Traditional Games is that visiting teams are housed together at the school where the games are held.
“It created something that was impactful for them,” said Worl. “It had a good community feeling.”
Worl also mentioned that this was an eye-opening event to many athletes for whom it was the first NYO event they attended. Some teams who attended the games were new to NYO and represented the first team ever formed in that community.
The connections athletes made with each other at the event was a highlight for many and added to their experience at the Traditional Games.
“This was by far the most enlightening, exciting, relaxing experiences for NYO to date,” said Trevor Edwards, an individual athlete from Fairbanks. “Shoutouts to the friends I’ve made who inspire me to push myself in every practice, when I struggle, when I want to stop. You guys are the reason I push myself.”
Arctic Winter Games
In addition to the Traditional Games and other NYO competitions in Alaska, every two years athletes are selected to compete in the Arctic Winter Games, an international competition for circumpolar sports.
The 2020 Arctic Winter Games were going to be held in Whitehorse, Yukon the week after the Traditional Games but were cancelled because of the growing COVID-19 outbreak.
Several NYO athletes competing at the Traditional Games were selected to represent Alaska in the Dene and Inuit Games as part of the AWG competition. In an instant, this rare opportunity for these athletes, who had trained vigorously and who had raised their own funds to participate in the highly competitive event, was taken away.
SHI hosted a ceremony to honor the AWG athletes in the hopes of relieving some of the grief caused by the cancellation.
The athletes attending the 2020 Traditional Games who were selected for Team Alaska. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Arctic Winter Games distinguished athlete Rod Worl, gold medalist who holds the knuckle hop record, and Reggie Joule, founding member of NYO and gold medalist, offered words of advice and encouragement to the athletes who could no longer attend AWG.
“Leadership and community feed each other,” said Rod Worl. “Without community, those leaders won’t go anywhere. They give energy to those leaders.”
Reggie Joule talked about the athletes’ roles as ambassadors, emphasizing that though they are not able to represent Alaska at the Arctic Winter Games, they are already ambassadors for their communities, schools and, most importantly to Joule, families. He also talked to them about the spirit of the games.
Reggie Joule addressing the AWG athletes. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
“It’s competitive,” said Joule. “It’s meant to be. But when you help somebody, another athlete, in the heat of this competition, and you coach them that high point that maybe they can’t see from where they’re at as a competitor, whatever happens to the outcome, no matter who wins, when you’re helping somebody be the very best that they can be on that day, there’s no loser.”
After the speeches, the AWG Team Alaska athletes were gifted Chilkat design wool robes.
“We are wrapping you in our love and respect,” said SHI President Rosita Worl.
Left: Team Alaska athletes from Juneau. Right: Juneau athletes huddle around Kyle Worl after he addressed the athletes in an emotional speech. Photos by Lyndsey Brollini.
To close the ceremony, Kyle Worl was moved to speak to the athletes, many of whom he had coached for years.
“I just want to say that I’m so proud of every one of you,” said Kyle Worl, “and the reason I get up every morning is to bring these opportunities to all of you and everybody here. Because this is a sport, this is a part of our culture that I love, and I want to see you guys fulfill your dreams. I know it’s heartbreaking that we had our dream set next week. We didn’t believe it possible that the Arctic Winter Games would be canceled. And I was so proud of every one of you for being selected to represent Alaska. But I know we’re going to continue to make your dreams come true. Gunalchéesh.”
Main sponsors of the 2020 Traditional Games, from left to right: Rosita Worl representing Sealaska Heritage Institute, Damen Bell-Holter representing Sealaska, Bridget Weiss representing the Juneau School District, Will Kronick representing Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and Kolene James representing University of Alaska Southeast. Photos by Lyndsey Brollini.
The Traditional Games could not have happened without the support of many sponsors. Main sponsors of the event were Sealaska, Sealaska Heritage, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, University of Alaska Southeast, and the Juneau School District.
Other sponsors include RuraL CAP, STEPS, Select Physical Therapy, Alaska Club, SEARHC, Trickster Company, Tlingit and Haida Community Council, Goldbelt Heritage, Zach Gordon Youth Services, and UAS Wooch.Een.
Gunalchéesh, háw’aa’uu, t’oya̱xsat ‘nüüsm, thank you for the continued support of NYO in Southeast Alaska and of the Traditional Games.