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Eskimo-Indian Olympics Capture Native Traditions

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Eskimo-Indian Olympics Capture Native Traditions


Eskimo-Indian Olympics Capture Native Traditions

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

My co-host, Melissa Block, is on a reporting trip to Alaska this week, and when she heard that the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics coincided with her stop in Anchorage, she couldn't resist.


How can you go wrong with events like these - the blanket toss, the Alaskan high kick, the seal hop.

I love her form. It's just awesome.

I got to Sullivan Arena in time for the two-foot high kick. It's a combination of pure athletic power and breathtaking grace. The athlete takes off on both feet from a standing or running start. He launches himself impossibly high into the air, keeps his feet parallel, and has to kick a small, sealskin ball that's suspended on a string. Then, he has to stick the landing.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: Oh, the male record on this event - eight feet, eight inches of precise, explosive vertical launch. It's an amazing thing to watch. Like many of these events, this one has its roots in traditional Eskimo practices.

Ms. NICOLE JOHNSTON (Head Official, World Eskimo-Indian Olympics): Somebody from the hunting party or from a group of people would run toward the village, jump in the air. And by the way or the style of the jump, the village would know that their hunting party was successful or unsuccessful.

BLOCK: That's the head official, Nicole Johnston, who stands…

How tall are you?

Ms. JOHNSTON: Just a smidge over five feet.

BLOCK: But tiny as she is, she holds the women's record for the two-foot high kick - six feet, six inches. She set in 1985. So how will she feel if that record's broken?

Ms. JOHNSTON: I've held the record for so long that I probably feel like I'm losing a part of me. That day will come. Someday it will come, and I prepare myself for it every year.

BLOCK: You do?

Ms. JOHNSTON: Yeah, I do, because you never know who's out there.

BLOCK: These athletes are intensely competitive, but they're also quick to cooperate and consult.

Unidentified Woman #1: And don't bring your body to your legs.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: Bring your legs to your body. So head up.

Unidentified Woman #2: Far as back as you can, okay?

BLOCK: The athletes help each other out, the older ones coaching the younger ones.

(Soundbite of clapping)

BLOCK: You'll hear this a lot at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics. It's the seal call, imitating the bark of the seal to urge the athletes on. Speaking of seals, I stepped into a walk-in freezer next to the gym with Asta Keller. A few days ago, she got a call from the Anchorage Airport.

Ms. ASTA KELLER (Defending Champion, Ear Pull Competition): They said we're looking for Asta Keller. You have five frozen seals here in freight at Alaska Airlines. So, coming right over.

BLOCK: Those five spotted seals are in this freezer wrapped in thick plastic. There may be 80 or 100 pounds each, four or five feet long, caught and sent down from Barrow, Alaska. They'll be used in the seal-skinning contest at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics. The time to beat - 57 seconds. The record's set in 1967.

Unidentified Woman #3: Women's ear pull is closed. Women's ear pull has been closed.

BLOCK: The ear pull. Now that's in a category all its own. The goal?

Mr. PERRY AHSOGEAK (Chairman, World Eskimo-Indian Olympics Board of Governors): To endure pain.

BLOCK: That's Perry Ahsogeak, the chairman of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics board of governors.

Mr. AHSOGEAK: Some of the stuff that we do when you're trying to survive out in the wild or out in the ice and you're a long way from home, and you hurt yourself, you have to be able to endure that pain until help comes.

BLOCK: And the defending women's ear pull champion this year was Asta Keller, who was with us in that freezer.

Ms. KELLER: It's a struggle to maintain our culture and, you know, we don't live in a world that is easy. And so, the ability to get through hardship figuratively, physically, physiologically, all of the above, I think is a reflection of some of these games.

BLOCK: Asta Keller has strong, proud features and good strong ears.

Ms. KELLER: I think the secret is basically just to have good genetics, good cartilage behind your ears, and it's a game where it tests your ability to withstand pain.

BLOCK: Here's how the ear pull works. The two competitors sit facing each other, their legs straddled and interlocked. A two-foot long loop of string is looped behind their ears. It's like a thick, waxed dental floss connecting right ear to right ear or left to left.

Unidentified Man #1: Ready, steady, pull.

BLOCK: At the signal, the athletes lean backward away from each other pulling the loop of string tighter and tighter behind their ears.

Unidentified Man #1: Straight back, straight back. Straight back. Straighten your head. Straighten your head out.

BLOCK: Their faces contort in pain, their ears turned bright red and then purple. The ears stretched and crumple, as the string cuts in deeper. It's a few seconds of pure agony that feels like forever…

Unidentified Man #2: Pull, pull, pull. Pull, pull, pull.

BLOCK: …until the string slides off, well, or one of the athletes gives up. After Michelle George(ph) is eliminated, I find her walking around with ice packs over both ears.

Ms. MICHELLE GEORGE (Athlete, World Eskimo-Indian Olympics): Oh, it really hurts. It's supposed to be a game, and it's not a game. It's like, if you can handle the pain and stuff, and I thought I could. I did the first time and I was just holding on and then I felt my cartilage moved, and there's going to be bruises, holy cow.

BLOCK: But bruises are the least of it.

Unidentified Woman #4: Oh, yeah, you're bleeding.

BLOCK: As the competition grows more intense, the blood starts flowing.

Unidentified Man #3: Burning still?

Unidentified Woman #5: It's better.

Unidentified Man #4: No. It's getting better.

Unidentified Man #3: Can you feel the throbbing?

Unidentified Man #4: No, it's not. Okay. It's closing up.

BLOCK: Three of the ear pull competitors are sent to the hospital to get stitches. And in an upset, 34-year-old Noel Strick of McGrath, Alaska defeats Asta Keller to be the new women's champion ear puller.

Ms. NOEL STRICK (New Women's Champion Ear Puller): As a native woman, this -you know, I kept going. I survived. And my whole life has been like that, and I'm not going to give up.

BLOCK: The words of a champion at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Anchorage, Alaska.

I'm Melissa Block.

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