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The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

    Alaska's Olympic history reaches further back than Alaskan Tommy Moe's 1994 gold medal for downhill skiing. In fact, Alaska's own Olympic games predate Moe's victory by several thousand years.

    Every July, Fairbanks hosts the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO), a four-day series of traditional Alaska Native athletic competitions and dances. WEIO draws Native athletes and dancers from around the state, the United States and Canada, as well as visitors, fans and media from around the globe. The 40th WEIO games take place July 12-15, 2000 in Fairbanks Big Dipper Arena.

    Careening down a hill at 70 miles per hour seems almost preferable to some of the grueling WEIO events. The ear pull, for example, is not for the faint of heart! In this event, two competitors are joined together by a piece of string looped around their ears and seated face-to-face. The competition begins as the athletes pull away from each other, trying to keep the string around their ears while bearing the pain that this action produces. If you win, your toughness and tolerance for pain amaze the fans. If you lose, you may lose more than just the game. Ears have actually been pulled off in this event!

    Events such as the ear pull are rooted in practicality. They not only provide entertainment, but give men and women the strength, discipline and endurance they need to survive in a harsh and unforgiving climate. All the WEIO events, from the fish cutting competition to the greased pole walk, serve this purpose. For instance, fast yet careful fish cutters were sometimes needed to process a plentiful fish run before spoilage could occur. A walk on a birch pole slathered with bear grease was good practice for walking in precarious situations such as checking a fish wheel on the river.

    One of the most popular and difficult games, the two-foot high kick, also reflects this kind of practical origin. Competitors leap into the air from a standing position, keeping both feet together at all times, and kick a softball-sized sealskin ball perched on a string up to eight feet high. Both feet must touch the floor simultaneously upon landing. This game originated in coastal whaling villages when, after taking a whale, hunters would jump and kick both feet in the air to signal to villagers in the distance to come help with the catch.

    Besides being a time to test strength and endurance, WEIO is also a time to don parkas, moose hide dresses and vests, mukluks and moccasins to compete in parka and Indian dress contests. It is also a time to dance and tell stories through songs and motion. Dressed in kuspuks , traditional summer parkas, and armed with feathered fans and drums, dancers perform throughout the four-day Olympics. Winners of the dance competition perform again on the last night of the event.

    Although the events themselves developed over the ages, WEIO was created in 1961 in response to the rapidly spreading impact of western culture into rural areas. Two bush pilots, the late A.E. Bud Hagberg and Frank Whaley, witnessed the Native games and dances in their village travels. They grew concerned that the traditional events would be lost as western ways seeped into the villages, unless steps were taken to preserve them. They helped organize the first Olympics, which included a blanket toss, a seal skinning contest, and a Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen contest.

    The event has since grown to over 50 games, with an ever-increasing number of athletes. For the competitors, WEIO is a chance to meet old friends and distant relatives, to entertain and be entertained, to challenge one another and to engage in friendly competition. For some competitors, it is the only tie to their heritage and a means of ensuring that their culture is celebrated.

    For visitors, it's a chance to see unparalleled feats of endurance and agility. It is also a chance to browse through booths of authentic Alaska Native crafts, and meet the people who carved, sewed, wove or beaded the items. WEIO provides visitors the rare chance to experience a culture alongside those who live within it.

    Every year WEIO coincides with Golden Days, Fairbanks annual summer celebration of its Gold Rush heritage, providing locals and visitors a variety of activities from which to choose.

    For more information of for a free copy of the Fairbanks Visitors Guide, call 1-800-327-5774 or write to the Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau, 550 1st Avenue, Fairbanks, AK 99701. Internet users can contact the Bureau at info@explorefairbanks.com or visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.