FAIRBANKS — As Alice Johnston watched and waited for an awards ceremony to begin at World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, she wondered if her best Alaska high kick was enough to make it on the podium.
But Johnston seemed unconcerned. She had other goals in mind, she said, as she sat with her daughter on the floor of the busy Big Dipper Arena.
Johnston, who lives in Palmer, grew up participating in traditional Native games with family. Her parents and three siblings are also competing this year. Now, it’s time to share the experience with a new generation, she said.
“I’m growing my own kids, my daughter and my son,” she said. “It’s time to come back and show them what WEIO is.”
WEIO has fostered an atmosphere unique in championship athletics since the annual event was founded in 1961. Athletes arrive from across Alaska, talented and trained for sometimes jaw-dropping displays of agility, strength and endurance. But WEIO also curates a culture of mutual support and shared achievement by its athletes. Participants cheer and coach their rivals, even in medal rounds.
Allison Akootchook Warden, the event’s emcee, said WEIO is more than a competition. It’s a place, she said, to strive to be one’s “best self” in an arena full of people who want that for one another.
“It just feels like such a special place to enter into, because of the community and how they’ve cared for this event for 62 years,” Warden said.
Fairbanks hosted WEIO for dozens of events over four days, ending Saturday. Many events are rooted in some way to the subsistence or survival skills traditional to Alaska’s Indigenous people. WEIO is a celebration of culture as much as it is a sports spectacle, punctuated often with traditional dancing and drumming.
Amber Vaska, the organization’s board chair, said WEIO provides a venue for participants to live their traditions and foster a sense of purpose, crucial components to building a sense of identity.
“These games are really just important for our participants to be able to be proud to be Alaska Native and an Indigenous person,” Vaska said.
Johnston said returning to the WEIO family has been on her mind for years. Though it had been about a decade since she last competed, she recognized the vibe in the arena, if not all of the people.
“It’s been so long that there’s so many new faces,” she said. “Time to make new family.”
On Friday, she also made a statement, exploding from the arena floor to kick a sealskin ball hanging 78 inches up. It was enough for a first-place in two foot high kick. Johnston then asked judges to raise the ball two inches more. Had she connected at 80 inches, it would’ve been a world record in front of a spellbound audience.
That didn’t happen, but Johnston figured she’d have another shot in future years. She hugged her competitors, family members and judges, “happy tears” welling in her eyes.
“It’s just amazing to be a part of this community,” she said. “I took too long of a break. I’ve missed it.”
Here’s a look at a few of the memorable moments and stories from the 2023 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics:
AmberLee Leavitt, 1, walked the Big Dipper floor wearing a fancy parka of wolverine, muskrat, sealskin and more. She held her doll and walked with her mother and father, Jerica and Qaiyaan Leavitt, of Utqiagvik.
Together they took home a first-place award in a fur division, thanks to Jerica, who sewed the fancy parkas for all, even the doll.
Jerica said she started sewing about 10 years ago, absorbing the knowledge from several elders back home. It seemed like a natural path for her life to take at the time, since she’s named after her great-grandmother.
“In our culture they say that when you’re named after somebody, characteristics are passed on,” said Jerica, whose Inupiaq name is Niayuq. The elder Niayuq was a skilled seamstress, Jerica said.
“I never knew my great grandmother, but I feel connected to her,” she said.
Walking from the arena with her family afterward, Jerica said she could appreciate her role in something bigger than the annual competition.
“As I’m getting older and my skills are getting better, I feel like I’m helping perpetuate the knowledge of how to create the regalia,” she said. “And that makes me really excited.”
Alaska high kick
Competing at the same time on opposite sides of the floor, two elite athletes took two very different approaches to kicking a sealskin ball in the Alaska high kick.
In that event, an athlete starts in a seated position, with one hand holding the foot on the opposite side. The athlete then pushes off with the other foot, swings his or her leg up to kick the ball, then lands balanced again on that same foot.
On one side of the floor, Eden Hopson of Utqiagvik narrowed her focus and blocked out the hundreds of people who watched her in the final rounds.
“I get so anxious when everyone’s clapping,” she said.
As the defending champ in the event, she had something even more on her mind than another win. She wanted to beat her personal record of 70 inches.
“That would’ve been really cool for me to just get there,” she said.
On the opposite side of the floor, Alex Covey, of Anchorage, stomped his feet before he kicked himself into the event’s unique handstand, pointing his toe for even the slightest contact with the ball. The crowd clapped in unison, then cheered.
“I used that adrenaline from the crowd screaming, getting me amped up,” he said.
Covey tied his personal record also, 90 inches, good enough for third place. “I’m feeling A-OK,” he said afterward.
“It doesn’t really matter about placing,” Covey said. “To me, it’s really more about beating yourself.”
Allison Akootchook Warden grew up eating maktak in Katkovik, a whaling village on the North Slope. But she said she’s never eaten it like this.
“Usually you savor it and chew it with small bites,” Warden said.
On Thursday, dozens of competitors in the maktak eating competition sat side by side with an approximately three-inch cube of chewy bowhead fat and skin set before them and an ulu with which to cut it. Warden said her sharp ulu helped, but chewing slowed her down more than expected, especially after she shoved many bites in her mouth at once.
“I’ve never eaten maktak with an audience before,” she said.
Brittany Woods-Orrison, from the Interior village of Rampart, doesn’t have regular access to maktak. If that was a disadvantage, she tried to make up for it in a simple way. She said she stayed busy visiting people and taking in the events of WEIO all day prior to the event.
When game time rolled around, “I was like, perfect. I’m getting hungry,” she said.
Woods-Orrison ate quickly enough for seventh place, raising her arms and cheering after she swallowed her last bite.
“Once I started eating, I was like ‘Oh, this is good,’” she said. “In the end, I win because I’m eating.”
WEIO’s world-class sportsmanship hardly means it lacks fierce competitive spirit. Witness the ear pull: Rarely have such nice people wanted to rip each other’s parts off.
Participants loop synthetic sinew from their ear to that of their competition. It’s best two out of three in this unique tug-of-war that tests pain stamina and recalls the sting of frostbite. The winner advancing in a tournament-style format.
Father faced son for the championship in the men’s finals. Both Frank Lane, the elder, and Frank Louis Lane, said their family has cartilage that hooks the line firmly. Frank Louis Lane called them “anchor ears.”
Though they’ve both participated in ear pull competitions many times before, this was the first time they’ve faced each other.
“I thought it was going to end up that way,” said the older Frank Lane, from Kotzebue.
Frank Louis Lake, who now lives in Anchorage, said he was disappointed, but not surprised to see his dad take the top prize.
“I knew he was gonna win,” he said.
Flora Rexford of Kaktovik made the finals in her first-ever WEIO ear pull, enduring round after round.
“It was tough,” Rexford said. “There were really tough competitors and really tough ears.”
The gold-medal match was tough to watch. The line cut into the ears of both Rexford and Caroline Wiseman, of Anchorage. Both bled onto their shirts and the competition paused as the woman tried to stanch their wounds.
Wiseman said she lost her first match of the day, but earned a shot at the title by running through the loser’s bracket to earn a second chance. Though she gave in to Rexford when she used her injured ear, she explained with a laugh that she reached the top prize thanks to “one really powerful ear.”
Rexford said she met Wiseman for the first time the day before the competition and discovered they’re relatives. As they waited for the podium ceremony, it seemed they would soon have more time to catch up.
“They want us to go to the hospital and get stitches,” Rexford said, holding bags of ice on both sides of her head. “So me and the first place are going to go over right after this.”
Tehya Titus of Minto said she didn’t know quite what to expect when she entered the Miss WEIO competition.
“I was just looking to share with others my culture and my traditions and my pride that I have for my village of Minto,” she said.
Behind the arena Friday night, Titus, 24, had to pause to collect her thoughts, overwhelmed by the experience of being crowned and celebrated by a WEIO audience of several hundred. Family and friends jostled for pictures with her, and the Minto dancers gave an impromptu performance in her honor.
“I just think of my great great grandparents, Neal and Geraldine Charlie, and all that they’ve passed down to my grandparents, and then to my mom, and then to me. And how it’s so strong,” Titus said when she stepped outside. “And I wish they were here so I could thank them.”
“I know they’re listening,” she said.
In her year with the title, Titus, who is Athabaskan, said she hopes to continue to project a message of Native strength and pride, especially to young people.
“There can be other distractions out there that try and fill that space, whether it be drugs and alcohol or social media,” she said. “That’s not what our ancestors had fought for. They fought to keep our culture and maintain it.”
Titus plans to study to become an electrician at Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward next year, and is considering a career in counseling down the road. She received the crown from outgoing Miss WEIO Michelle Pearl Uyumgaq Kaleak of Utqiagvik.
In the preliminary rounds of the one foot high kick, Danica Taylor closed her eyes and took deep breaths before her attempt. She had come a long way to get to WEIO with hopes to be in the finals of one of its marquee events.
Taylor, 19, traveled to Fairbanks from her home in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, with coach and fellow athlete Veronica McDonald. Doing so involved a 20-hour travel day through Vancouver and Seattle. Hours before the finals began, she said it was already worth it.
“I think Alaska has so much talent within their Arctic sports …,” Taylor said. “The energy here is just amazing and I’m so glad I was able to come here.”
McDonald is a WEIO veteran. She competed in 2018 after being encouraged by her friend, Autumn Ridley, a three-time world record-breaking Native games athlete from Anchorage. The two had competed together at Arctic Winter Games. Ridley, who died in February while living in Texas, was honored for her impact on Native games at WEIO this year.
“2018 was just so special to me …,” she said. “With (Ridley’s) passing, I thought it was a great idea to experience it once more.”
“I thought I’d bring the next generation up as well,” said McDonald, who also helps organize the recently-launched Indigenous Summer Games in Canada.
Their journey home was scheduled to begin with a flight out of Fairbanks at midnight, just as WEIO concludes for 2023.