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World Eskimo Indian Olympics preserve tradition, culture, while pushing bodies to the limit

A World Eskimo Indian Olympics athlete withstands the pain during the Ear Pull Saturday at the...
A World Eskimo Indian Olympics athlete withstands the pain during the Ear Pull Saturday at the 60th Anniversary of the Games.(Jordan Rodenberger (KTVF))
Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 7:45 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Every summer, communities from across Alaska gather in Fairbanks for the World Eskimo Indian Olympic (WEIO) to celebrate Native culture while paying respect to the difficulties of survival by the harsh environments of generations before them.

While the cancellation of the 2020 Games was necessary, the absence of gathering to showcase and uphold traditions was missed throughout communities.

“It is really important for us on a cultural level, just because being together with people is so important for our mental health, also for who we are as a general group of people and to be able to share experiences is so important,” said WEIO Vice Chair Mandy Sullivan. “The premise of these Games are to remind ourselves that we do need to get together, we do need to celebrate, having come over a very long winter, having come over those challenges that we might endure personally or as a whole community.”

Phillip Blanchett, originally from Bethel, still competes in the Games at age 46, often more than twice the age of other competitors.

“There is nothing like,” Blanchett said of WEIO. “As far as the community involvement, and how the togetherness that it has, but it is an individual sport, everybody is going for their personal best and so there is not many things that have that.”

Though, the athletes do not see each other as competitors, as the goal is to set a personal-best measurement, not defeat the person next to you.

“These games involve a lot of sportsmanship,” said Junior Sumdum, a WEIO athlete from Anchorage. “We are not here to compete against each other, so encouraging people, whether I am going 1-on-1 with someone, we are still going to help each other out. It means a lot to see someone break their records.”

That mindset was not created artificially, but out of necessity, as explained by WEIO Official Arlene Warrior, who has been a part of the Games since 2000.

“It means the survival of the people,” she said.” Because you get one whale, the community eats. If it was a competition, you won’t get that whale, because no one is helping to bring it in to feed the people.”

The Games themselves display the preparedness one needed for survival, requirement skill, strength, agility and endurance.

Beyond the number Games taking place, ranging from the Scissor Broad Jump, Eskimo Stick Pull, the Alaskan High Kick, Blanket Toss, to a Maktak Eating contest and more, the four-day period also features a number of vendors selling handcrafted art, Miss WEIO Pageant and regalia contests to highlight and promote their heritage.

While the WEIO Games returned for its 60th Anniversary this year, the Games also returned to the Big Dipper Ice Arena for the first time in 15 years, bringing back memories of the many who have been involved in the storied WEIO Games for decades.

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