Alaska’s Indigenous teens emulate ancestors’ Arctic survival skills at the Native Youth Olympics

Apr 27, 2024, 12:36 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The athletes filling a huge gym in Anchorage were ready to compete, cheering and stomping and high-fiving each other as they lined up for the chance to claim the state’s top prize in their events.

But these teenagers were at the Native Youth Olympics, a statewide competition that attracts hundreds of Alaska Native athletes each year and pays tribute to the skills and techniques used by their ancestors to survive in the harsh polar climate.

Events at the competition that wraps up Saturday include a stick pull, meant to mimic holding onto a slippery seal as it fights to return to the water, and a modified, four-step broad jump that approximates leaping across ice floes on the frozen ocean.

For generations, Alaska Natives played these games to develop the skills they needed to become successful hunters — and survive — in an unforgiving climate.

Now, today’s youth play “to help preserve our culture, our heritage, and to teach our youth how difficult life used to be and to share our culture with everyone around us who wants to know more about our people,” said Nicole Johnson, the head official for the event and one of Alaska’s most decorated Native athletes.

Johnson herself has won over 100 medals at Native Olympic competitions and for 29 years held the world record in the two-foot high kick, an event where athletes jump with both feet, kick a ball while keeping both feet even, and then land on both feet. Her record of 6-feet, 6-inches was broken in 2014.

For the “seal hop,” a popular event on Saturday, athletes get into a push-up or plank position and shuffle across the floor on their knuckles — the same stealthy crawl their ancestors used during a hunt to sneak up on unsuspecting seals napping on the ice.

“And when they got close enough to the seal, they would grab their harpoon and get the seal,” said Johnson, an Inupiaq originally from Nome.

Colton Paul had the crowd clapping and stomping their feet. Last year, he set a world record in the scissors broad jump with a mark of 38 feet, 7 inches when competing for Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka. The jump requires power and balance, and includes four specific stylized leaps that mimic hop-scotching across floating ice chunks to navigate a frozen river or ocean.

The Yupik athlete from the western Alaska village of Kipnuk can no longer compete because he’s graduated, but he performed for the crowd on Friday, and jumped 38 feet, 9 inches.

He said Native Youth Olympics is the only sport for which he’s had a passion.

“Doing the sports has really made me had a sense of ‘My ancestors did this’ and I’m doing what they did for survival,” said Paul, who is now 19. “It’s just something fun to do.”

Awaluk Nichols has been taking part in Native Youth Olympics for most of her childhood. The events give her a chance to explore her Inupiaq heritage, something she feels is slowly fading away from Nome, a Bering Sea coastal community.

“It helps me a lot to just connect with my friends and my culture, and it just means a lot to me that we still have it,” said the high school junior, who listed her best event as the one-foot high kick.

Some events are as much of a mental test as a physical one. In one competition called the “wrist carry,” two teammates hold a stick at each end, while a third person hangs from the dowel by their wrist, legs curled up like a sloth, as their teammates run around an oval track.

The goal is to see who can hang onto the stick the longest without falling or touching the ground. The event builds strength, endurance and teamwork, and emulates the traits people of the north needed when they lived a nomadic lifestyle and had to carry heavy loads, organizers said.

Nichols said her family and some others still participate in some Native traditions, like hunting and subsisting off the land like their ancestors, but competing in the youth games “makes you feel really connected with them,” she said.

“Just knowing that I’m part of what used to be — it makes me happy,” she said.

National News

Associated Press

Widespread power outages from deadly Houston storm raise new risk: hot weather

HOUSTON (AP) — As the Houston area works to clean up and restore power to thousands after deadly storms, it will do so Saturday under a smog warning and as all of southern Texas starts to feel the heat. The National Weather Service in Houston warned that with temperatures hitting around 90 degrees (32.2 C) […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Man shoots his 6-month-old baby multiple times at home near Phoenix, but child expected to survive

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — A man shot his 6-month-old baby multiple times Friday at a home northwest of Phoenix after taking the infant and its mother captive, but the mother escaped with minor injuries and the child was expected to survive, authorities said. They said the status of the suspect remained unknown after a fire […]

10 hours ago

Associated Press

Missouri candidate with ties to the KKK can stay on the Republican ballot, judge rules

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A longshot Missouri gubernatorial candidat e with ties to the Ku Klux Klan will stay on the Republican ticket, a judge ruled Friday. Cole County Circuit Court Judge Cotton Walker denied a request by the Missouri GOP to kick Darrell McClanahan out of the August Republican primary. McClanahan is running […]

10 hours ago

Associated Press

UN experts say South Sudan is close to securing a $13 billion oil-backed loan from a UAE company

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts say South Sudan is close to securing a $13 billion loan from a company in the United Arab Emirates, despite the oil-rich country’s difficulties in managing debts backed by its oil reserves. The panel of experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that loan documents it […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

A murderous romance or frame job? Things to know about Boston’s Karen Read murder trial

BOSTON (AP) — A highly anticipated trial in Massachusetts involving a woman accused of striking her Boston police officer boyfriend with her SUV and leaving him for dead in a snowbank is finishing its third week on Friday. The case has garnered national attention because the defense alleges that state and local law enforcement officials […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

US security alert warns Americans overseas of potential attacks on LGBTQ events

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department renewed a global security warning Friday for Americans overseas, adding to it that LGBTQ people and events in particular face an “increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence.” The alert is a standard renewal of travel advice telling Americans to exercise increased caution against possible attacks by violent extremist […]

12 hours ago

Alaska’s Indigenous teens emulate ancestors’ Arctic survival skills at the Native Youth Olympics