Alaska Native Youth Olympics opened with tribute to elders

By Debra McKinney
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 4-09

One by one, banner-wielding teams in this year’s Native Youth Olympics paraded into the Dena’ina Center’s first-floor exhibit hall April 23, sporting matching T-shirts and workout suits, grins big and small, some members with eyes locked on their shoes, some riding high upon their teammates’ shoulders.

The Port Graham Killer Whales.


The Yakutat Eagles.


Teams from Tatitlek, Chickaloon, Mountain Village, Bethel, Aniak, Bristol Bay, Point Lay, Chevak, Barrow – teams from 57 communities in all.

At opening ceremonies, all these teams blended into one as some 500 middle and high school kids lined up shoulder to shoulder in multiple layers on a portable basketball floor in a room the size of a football field, minus end zones. Over the next three days, these kids would be competing against each other, with only so many taking home medals. That part is more than understood. Because in the big picture – in the spirit of these games – they’re all on the same team.

As Clare Swan put it in the pre-game blessing, “The honor of one is the honor of all.”

But before the games got under way, before the kids would do the Seal Hop, replicating the way their ancestors snuck up on seals, or the Indian Stick Pull, using skills needed to grab a slippery salmon, or the Toe Kick, teaching them to be light on their feet on sea ice, or any of the other events, came a moment of silence.

Noel Strick, a head judge, asked for this moment to honor the elders and others who had passed away since the last time they’d all gathered, and to remind the kids why they were there.

“Whether you win or lose during these games, you’re all winners because you’re passing on our traditions,” she told them. “And even if you’re not Native, you’re sharing in them.

“Let’s remember, and let’s celebrate.”

Among those on her mind during that moment was one of NYO’s biggest fans – her grandmother, who died of cancer in February.   

“My grandmother was a very, very strong woman,” she said during a break. “When I’m doing something like this that ties us together, you can’t help but remember people who have passed. The games have provided strength for us. Survival, that’s what this is all about.”

Strick, a World Eskimo-Indian Olympics medalist, is especially drawn to the adult games’ Ear Pull and Ear Weight events, ones that not only really hurt but have sent more than one competitor off to get stitches behind the ears.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Why would you do that?’“There are several reasons,” she said. “One, these games are so old. I mean, they’re hundreds of years old, and I’m getting to carry that on. There’s pride in that. Just the cultural part of it strengthens me, and I know it strengthens my children. These games help pull us together.”

Although most of the competitors are Native, these games are open to kids of all races. Lucas Hickle, 14, of Colony Middle School, is happy about that. He got hooked last year, when the games were taught through PE classes at school.


“A couple of the village Natives came in and showed how to do all the events,” he said. “I wasn’t very good at them but I really liked them. In other games, everybody is your opponent. Here, everyone is family, even if you’re on different teams.”

Last year, Hickle won the district-level Wrist Carry, which tests the strength and endurance of hunters. A competitor hooks a wrist over a pole and is carried, feet tucked up, by teammates on each end of the pole until he can’t hold on any longer.

This year, Hickle is a team of one. Since his coach is out of state, he was adopted by the Palmer Junior Middle School team, but still he’s a guy who could have shown up with his very own banner. It has its advantages. Normally, only one competitor from each team can enter an event.

“Since I’m the only kid from Colony, I’m allowed to do all of the events,” he said. “So I think I’m going to try that.”

New Venue for Games

These games that test strength, agility, balance and endurance may be as old as the hills but the venue is new. This is the first time they’ve been held at the Dena’ina Center, a bit of a last-minute switch that is sure to catch some fans off guard.

Brian Walker, a NYO statewide coordinator and WEIO medalist, said it came together only eight days before. Any confusion, he thinks, will be worth it.

Sullivan Arena, where the games have been held the past several years, is just too big.

“It didn’t have that tight-knit village-type atmosphere,” he said.

At the Dena’ina, there’s not much of a moat between the competitors and the audience, which sits in rows of chairs huddled around the perimeter of the competition floor. The acoustics are better, too, he said.

To say Walker is a big believer in these games is an understatement.

“For the Native kids, it’s a way to showcase the healthy lifestyle that our forefathers had. For the non-Natives, it’s a way to learn another culture, another tradition.”

Melanie Cole, who coaches the NYO Palmer team, has seen how these games bring out the best in students who are not part of the traditional school sports scene.

“It is a team event, but they’re not looked down on or put down because they’re not the biggest and or the strongest or the fastest,” she said.

“I’ve got kids on my team that live for this. And this has been in some ways a turning point for them to keep those grades up, to keep out of trouble so that they can keep coming back.”