Traditional NYO Games Stream Live From Juneau, Embrace Culture Statewide

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Juneau Indigenous Youth Olympic Games coach Kyle Worl demonstrates the One Foot High Kick during a traditional Games practice at the gymnasium at Juneau-Douglas Yadaa.at Kale High School. (Klas Stolpe)

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – The traditional 2021 Indigenous Youth Olympic Games will be broadcast live from the Thunder Mountain High School gymnasium this Saturday and Sunday.

Juneau Indigenous Youth Olympics coach Kyle Worl said the games are typically held every spring and normally feature teams from across the region and state and have even included teams from Canada and Canada. Arizona.

“The games are lightened up this year and focus on more Southeast teams split into north and south events,” said Worl, coordinator of the north event in Juneau and the south event in Ketchikan, who has been postponed to May 22 and 23. due to a recent coronavirus issue there. “Safety is our top priority. We are able to invite teams with high vaccination rates within their community and low risk COVID status so that some athletes from a few different fields can come together. We believe we can have a safe event with our mitigations in place. “

The public, however, is not permitted to attend, according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Only athletes, coaches, officials and organizing staff will be allowed on site and will be subject to a COVID mitigation plan that involves testing every athlete and participant in the event, wearing masks and cleaning up by a sanitation team.

Juneau, Hoonah, Anchorage and Unalakleet will be represented at the Juneau games, scheduled for Saturday (9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and Sunday (9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.).

About 40 athletes are expected in each of the 10 events that test the skills of strength, agility, balance, endurance and focus.

TMHS junior Ezra Elisoff is in his second year of traditional games.

“At first when I came into first year I was wrestling my main sport and I focused a lot on that and that was basically my passion,” said Elisoff. “Then a friend of mine told me I had to join NYO because during fitness contests I had a pretty good long jump and all that. “

Once the fight was over, he gave it a go and stayed with it.

“Now that sort of opens up cultural bridges,” he said. “I speak Tlingit and learn more about my clan and where we come from.”

Elisoff took first place in the one-handed reach with 62 inches without skipping at a recent state event in Anchorage.

“When I joined, I didn’t expect to pick it up as quickly as I did,” said Elisoff. “I kind of expected it to take more than a few years, but I’m very proud to have accomplished everything I’ve accomplished so far and it just makes me feel good about myself. “

Lyric Ashenfelter, a second year student at TMHS, hopes to become more advanced in all aspects of traditional games.

“I really love the Indigenous Youth Olympics because I made a lot of friends through them,” said Ashenfelter. “It’s really supportive. I made so many friends and it’s such a positive community. We all build each other up and it’s super fun. I actually learned the purpose of the games here and the cool stories behind why they exist, and it’s pretty cool. I want to improve myself at these events and teach other people about these events like little family members or something because it’s a lot of fun and I think they would have a good time with that too .

Worl said he knew about the games growing up, but didn’t join them until he was in his final year of high school. His father, Rodney Worl, holds the world record for Knuckle Hop.

“I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. It took several years of encouragement, ”he said. “I remember going to my first practice and being very nervous, but I automatically felt like this was where I wanted to be. I felt like I belonged there. I felt that my cultural identity, to which I had not always been very open, was embraced within NYO.

The world has embraced the NYO as well.

For the past 13 years he has been an athlete, coach, official and coordinator. He became a Tlingit language teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School because the games inspired him to learn more about his cultural identity.

“So it was a kind of gateway for me that allowed me to learn my culture and want to take these extra steps to really learn my language. he said.

NYO’s Southeastern program started about four years ago as part of a Sealaska Heritage cultural summer camp. The Sealaska Heritage Institute and other sponsors first helped organize a team in Juneau in 2017 at Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain high schools, and in 2018 the city was represented at the NYO Games Alaska for the first time. in almost 30 years. The traditional 2019 Games in Juneau marked the first time Southeast Alaska has hosted a state-wide Indigenous sporting event.

“It started small. I think a lot of people were just curious and unsure of what NYO is and why should I get involved, but really after that first year it took off. The kids were able to attend an event and see what it was like to be on the field with other athletes and meet other athletes from all over the state and feel that camaraderie that they are there for. doing their best and not necessarily to outdo someone else but doing their best and that has generated a lot of excitement, ”said Worl.

The games have since grown in Juneau and across the region with teams now in Hoonah, Craig, Hydaburg, Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Yakutat and Sitka.

This year, Haines and Skagway started some practice in their schools for the first time.

“They couldn’t make it to our event, but they took the first step and started coaching their athletes in their community,” said Worl. “It’s just exciting to see the growth of the sport in the region. I think there is a lot of potential for it to continue to grow and we hope to have this regional event going on every year. This year is very different; we are in a pandemic. It was our goal to do something for the kids this year and we knew it would be different, but we really wanted to be able to give them something to look forward to. “

Internationally and collegially, the games are called Arctic Sports.

The origins of traditional games come from the Athabaskan people of the interior and the Inupiaq and Inuit peoples of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia.

The games are based on ancient hunting and survival techniques that allowed Indigenous people to survive and thrive in the harsh conditions of Alaska and the Arctic.

“Many of our young people are still active in subsistence lifestyles, hunting, gathering, fishing,” Worl said. “Some of the games like the Inuit Stick Pole are about extracting a seal from the ice. Well, here in the southeast, we don’t go out on the ice to hunt seals, but we hunt seals from our boats, so we have to pull the seal on our boat. There are similarities in terms of hunting and its relationship to games. “

“I think our participants really resonate with these games, especially our Indigenous participants because we understand the subsistence lifestyle and the importance of working together to be successful, as the hunters worked together to be successful, you will see that built in. in our games. Our athletes show sportsmanship, and they give advice and help other athletes and it’s not really about competition but pretty much everyone is there to hit their personal best. I think that’s what makes the games really positive, ”Worl said.

The top award at the NYO games is the Gloria Walker Sportsmanship Award, an honor won by Mt. Edgecumbe in 2019. The award is named after the late Gloria Walker, an Indigenous athlete, coach and advisor who coordinated the NYO games for years. years.

At NYO, it’s common to see athletes sharing advice with their opponents, coaches helping athletes from other teams, and participants cheering on their peers. Winners rarely have an ego.

Crab fisherman Haley Osborne from Nome won the Eskimo Stick Pull award for several years while attending Mount Edgecumbe and likened the event to hauling crab pots to his home community of Nome, “He did there is no ego involved in transporting crab pots. “

His teammate, Murphy Charles of Newton, won the Kneel Jump, an event that reenacts his family hunting seals on the ice, “when my parents and I hunt country foods.”

Worl has won individual honors at the games, including the Healthy Coach award, but said it was difficult for him to choose a favorite event from the Indian Stick Pull, One-Foot High Kick, Seal Hop, Eskimo Stick Pull. , Kneel Jump, Wrist Carry, Cissor-Broad Jump, One-Arm Reach, Two Foot High Kick or Alaskan High Kick.

“I think they’re all great, they’re all difficult in different ways,” he said. “I would say the Two-Foot High Kick is one of my favorite events because when you have a really good strong kick it’s just awesome. You kind of get an adrenaline rush.

Worl said the goal is for NYO to become a mainstream sport and give young people the opportunity to get scholarships to college.

For the past two years, the state’s NYO Games have provided two college scholarships per year for NYO athletes.

“We’re sort of in an exciting era of native games where they’re in this growing moment,” Worl said. “And I hope to see on the road more colleges around Alaska that have Arctic Sports or Native Games teams and more colleges offering scholarships to athletes in that sport.”

Although the games are closed to the public for COVID security protocols, they can be seen on the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s YouTube site and on a special website at traditionalgames.sealaskaheritage.org.

There will be a college division and a high school division and the results will be posted on the site.

“Normally we also have an adult division, but due to COVID we have split the adult or open division (usually not affiliated with any team) into a third event that will take place this summer, possibly in Anchorage,” Worl said.

“I think what’s really great about these events is that they’re cross-cultural events. Our participants come from many different cultural backgrounds and not all of them are Indigenous, but this is an opportunity for the wider community to learn more about the Indigenous cultures of Alaska and not just the Inupiaq or Inuit cultures.

Events in Juneau typically have traditional Southeastern dance groups.

“We are starting to consider including traditional South East games as well, so this is a cross-cultural event,” he said.

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