Alaskan Native Youth Olympics Revive Ancestral Survival Skills in Epic State Competition


Beneath the rugged rafters of a colossal gymnasium in Anchorage, it wasn’t the usual brand of athletes who gathered, hearts afire with fierce determination, ready to participate in a unique State competition. Their cheers echoed off the walls, masculine slaps and feminine high-fives traded openly as they enthusiastically positioned themselves to vie for the highest honor Alaska had to offer in their distinctive events.

Disregarding any preconceptions of conventional sports, it is crucial to understand that these were not just any teams. They were part of the Native Youth Olympics – an annual sporting tribute aiming to revive the skills that equipped their ancestors to thrive amidst the icy landscapes of Polar Alaska. This competition draws hundreds of local Alaskan Natives, with each participant ready to honor their heritage with every sport they engage in.

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Various challenges await them on the path to glory, each designed to hearken back to age-old survival techniques. The stick pull, for instance, simulates a duel against a slippery seal fighting to escape back into the icy waters. The modified four-step broad jump fascination lures the audience into experiencing the thrill of leaping over treacherous ice floes that pose barriers on a frozen ocean.

Since time immemorial, these games equipped Alaska Natives with the necessary skills to endure and thrive in an environment known only to demand survival of the fittest. The head official of the event and celebrated local athlete, Nicole Johnson, expounds upon these competitions as not simply sports – but a manifestation of their cultural wealth. She emphasizes that the significance of these games is to educate their youth on the trials of a past life, promoting mutual respect, and an understanding of their heritage amongst their community.

In the illustrious history of the Native Olympic Games, Nicole Johnson remains an iconic figure. With over a century of medals to her credit and a world record for the two-foot high kick held for 29 years, she set the bar high at six feet six inches. Her record was only broken half a decade ago.

One of the more popular games, the “seal hop”, simulates a hunter’s stealthy approach towards a seal lounging lazily upon a floe. The athletes in plank position, they shuffle forward on their knuckles, enclosing the distance between their unsuspecting prey.

Meanwhile, the anchorage found itself teeming with athletes hailing from over hundred communities across Alaska. They had all assembled to partake in the three-day event, their anticipatory silence tinted with proud threading of their roots and the exciting prospects of reveling in the history their forefathers had lived.

Pride of place during the games was taken by a Yupik athlete, an accomplished champion from the western Alaska village of Kipnuk. Despite his graduation barring his participation, he regaled the spectators with his prodigious power and balance. Last year, he had set a world record in the scissors broad jump, a remarkable feat jaw-dropping to those who witnessed it.

Amidst participants was 14-year-old Gunnar Davis who found himself pitted against the challenges of a Wrist Carry, emblematic of the necessary physical strength, endurance and teamwork our ancestors needed to survive the northern regions’ harsh winter.

Echoing the sentiments of everyone present at the games was 19-year-old Colton Paul whose passion has been solely devoted to the Native Youth Olympics. With each sport, he relished the connection he felt with his roots, his heritage, and his ancestors. Moreover, it brought elation to not just him but several participants who found immense satisfaction in these events.

Awaluk Nichols, an Inupiaq participant from Nome, echoed similar sentiments. Through her participation in the games, she found herself exploring fragments of her Inupiaq heritage which remained tenuous in Nome. The games offered her a channel to interact with her friends and connect with her culture.

Explaining how some families, including her own, continued to honor native traditions, Nichols elaborated that such traditions like hunting and living off the land were fewer in number, but their legacy continued through participation in such events.

The Native Youth Olympics do not only act as an arena of sporting prowess but as an avenue of cultural exploration. They provide participants a sense of belonging, an avenue of embodying the personality and experiences of their ancestors. It’s more than just a game. These events serve to rekindle the primal spark of what used to be, offering a sublime sense of happiness to those that partake, preserving a rich cultural heritage for future generations.