Games put heritage in perspective for Alaska woman

By Amanda Bohman
Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) August 2010

A crowd of about 50 people gathered in the grass outside the Carlson Center while an official wiped Crisco across a long wooden pole July 22.

The creamy substance liquefied in the warm sun as competitors slipped, slid and flailed across the pole, some landing on their rump.

The greased pole walk at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is not Erica Meckel’s specialty, but she was game.

Few, including Meckel, made it farther down the slippery pole than a few feet.

“Good balance helps,” the 22-year-old said. “The trick is to not bend forward or bend back too far.”

Meckel should know. The gold medalist is a veteran of the games, specializing in the one-foot and two-foot high kick, scissor broad jump and knuckle hop.

Carol Hull, Meckel’s mentor, holds the 7-foot women’s record for the traditional one-foot high kick, and Meckel has come within a quarter inch of breaking it. Competitors play the game by taking a hop, a jump and then kicking at a suspended ball before landing without losing their balance, all on the same foot.

“She’s a strong athlete with a strong will,” Hull said. “I know she has the ability to break my record.”

Meckel said she paid scant attention to the games until 2006.

“I had never done the games before, so I wasn’t really interested in it,” she said.

But then a summer job offer came her way. The former competitive gymnast was offered a gig performing demonstrations of the games at the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

Meckel knew little about the events, but Hull changed that, training her for the demonstrations.

“When I saw her kick, I was like ‘Oh my God.’ She is going to go places,” Hull said.

Later, Meckel’s brother talked her into competing at the games.

Meckel thrived. In 2008, she won the Howard Rock Outstanding Athlete Award.

“I had so much fun and I made a lot of really good friends,” she said. “I definitely got closer to my culture.”

Born and raised in Fairbanks, Meckel is a graduate of Lathrop High School and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Meckel’s mother is a teacher and her father works as an accountant. She has one sibling, an older brother who belongs to the carpenters’ union.

Meckel works as a mental health technician at the Boys and Girls Home of Alaska and moonlights at a local gym, spending the extra money on payments toward her 2008 Scion XB.

Meckel confessed she paid scant attention to her Athabascan roots until her involvement with WEIO.

“This sounds horrible, but nothing about it piqued my interest,” she said. “It seemed to be more hard work than anything.”

Meckel’s attitude changed after she saw other Alaska Native people her own age practicing in cultural activities.

“All of a sudden, I started beading,” Meckel said. “I learned how to cut fish. I was taking language classes at the university. I had my mom bring me to Nulato.”

One summer, Meckel managed the WEIO retail shop in a cabin at Pioneer Park.

Luke Gunderman, general manager of the games, described her help as fantastic.

“She basically took the cabin away from me so I could focus on WEIO,” he said.

One important lesson that Meckel said she has learned from participating in WEIO is that winning isn’t everything.

Hull, who belongs to WEIO’s board of governors, said she’s seen the games change a lot of young Alaska Native people.

“WEIO gave me a sense of who I am,” Meckel said. “My family is really proud of me for participating.”