Savoonga artists bring blanket toss to Juneau

Two Alaska Native artists from St. Lawrence Island spent a week in Juneau sharing their work. The couple’s residency culminated with a blanket toss, with a walrus-hide blanket finished only minutes before.

John Waghiyi, Jr. finishes work on a walrus-hide blanket on Aug. 29, 2019, in Juneau. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene (right), were artists-in-residence at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Around 70 people gathered outside the Sealaska building in downtown Juneau on a sunny afternoon. John Waghiyi, Jr. told them to grunt — and they did.

“I feel like I’m on the ice pack!” he said. “(It sounds like) there’s a whole herd of walrus.”

 As he spoke, young helpers hurriedly threaded a thick rope through the holes around the edge of the walrus-hide blanket, finishing the handles.

Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene, used the time to teach the crowd a walrus dance from their hometown, Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

Waghiyi explained how the blanket will be used, likening it to a 14-foot trampoline, “But in this case people grab onto the rope around the edges, and a toss leader will direct everybody to pull in unison and propel a person up. Based on experience they can go higher and higher.”

When the handles are done, one crucial thing is still missing: People, lots of them, to grab hold of the handles and pull.

Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl called out to passersby on the street: “We need pullers! Come and help! Come and help!”

Worl asked Waghiyi to create the blanket during his week-long artist residency at the institute. He had the hide already, from a walrus he harvested years ago to feed his family.

The home of the blanket toss, like walrus, is far from Southeast Alaska.

“It’s Inuit, Inupiat, Siberian Yupik — it’s predominantly an up north event. Nalukataq is what they call it. It’s a celebration of the harvest of the bowhead whale,” said Waghiyi.

But in more recent years, the blanket toss has become a feature across Alaska in competitive events like the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and Native Youth Olympics.

Kyle Worl does a back flip during a blanket toss in Juneau on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)
Kyle Worl does a back flip during a blanket toss in Juneau on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

When enough pullers have grabbed hold of the blanket, Juneau Native Youth Olympics coach Kyle Worl climbed onto the blanket. He steadied himself as he was lifted a few feet above the ground. He double-checked that everyone understood the process: a few gentle pulls as he counted down, and then the big one. He landed a tidy backflip.

The second, and final, jumper of the day was 9-year-old Race Katchatag, a young relative of the Waghiyis who lives in Juneau. It was his first time jumping, and he did it cross-legged. He left the blanket grinning.

“I thought I was gonna fall, like hit the ground, but I didn’t,” he said.

Katchatag offered this advice to first-time blanket toss jumpers: “Just like, believe in yourself.”

The blanket Waghiyi created will be used for blanket toss competitions in Juneau for years to come.