Skill and tradition honored at 60th anniversary World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

Alaska Public Media multimedia journalist Jeff Chen photographed the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics on Thursday and Friday evening in Fairbanks.

Here’s a snapshot.

a person prepares to ascend while others pull during a blanket toss demonstration
Eden Hopson of Utqiaġvik prepares to ascend during the blanket toss finals at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Hopson won second place female in Scissor Broad Jump, first place female in Kneel Jump, first place female in One Hand Reach, third place female in Alaskan High Kick, second place female in Two Foot High Kick, third place female in Bench Reach and first place female in One Foot High Kick. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics was nostalgic for many who attended last week. The games were held at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, which was a throwback to earlier years, and it was also the 60th anniversary of the event.

“I just keep telling myself it’s just another competition,” said Ezra Elisoff. “But on the inside, I’m really ecstatic and excited, because there’s usually a lot of nice faces around.”

a person kicks a ball suspended in the air
Ezra Elisoff of Juneau takes his turn during the Two Foot High Kick finals at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Elisoff won third place male for the Two Foot High Kick, second place male in One Foot High Kick, third place male Knuckle Hop, second place male in Scissor Broad Jump and first place male in Indian Stick Pull. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Elisoff, 17, who is Tlingit, attends Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau. In the men’s division he won first place in Indian Stick Pull, second place in Scissor Broad Jump and third place for both Two Foot High Kick and Knuckle Hop.

The games played at WEIO are a test of the body and spirit, a way to teach the preparedness needed for survival in northern communities, according to the pamphlet handed out at the event.

“The Olympics are more of a western-style sport, so it’s like everyone has their own technique that they don’t really share,” said Elisoff. “The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics it’s an Indigenous sport and we always think of it as we’re fellow hunters trying to help each other. So, we always give each other advice, because realistically, back when you were hunting with other people, you’d wanna help build them up, because you don’t want them to go home and leave their families hungry.”

two people reviewing strategy during a sporting event
Bernard Clark of Wasilla (left) and Kyle Worl of Juneau chat during the Two Foot High Kick competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Worl won first place and Clark won second place for men’s Two Foot High Kick. They each also placed in the top three for many other competitions. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

For public health safety, many of this year’s events were outside. But in the evenings, events took place inside the arena with some COVID-19 precautions.

Fans from around Alaska — and visitors from as far as Italy and India — cheered for the competitors as newly-acquired archival footage from the first WEIO in 1961 played in the background on a big screen. As a consequence of COVID-19, last year was the first cancellation in the games’ 60-year history.

Aizah Sullivan, 24, who is Absentee Shawnee, Muscogee Creek of Oklahoma, and Athabascan from Tanana, won first place in the Ear Pull competition.

“Ear Pull is to signify enduring frostbite,” she said. “It’s definitely a sign of self strength and perseverance.”

two people compete in the ear pull competition
Aizah Sullivan of Fairbanks (left) and Nicole Johnson of Nome demonstrate the Ear Pull. Sullivan won first place for the women’s Ear Pull competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Sullivan said she felt a little nervous before the competition.

But, she added, “it’s a good nervous, because you know they expect you to be your best.”

“It’s super cool to be able to just compete with someone who’s just been there along their journey for so long,” she said. “We’re just here to keep our traditions going, and pass them down to our young ones and stuff. It’s great. It’s super great.”

Click here for a full list of WEIO 2021 results.

a person soars during a blanket toss demonstration
Marjorie Tahbone of Nome ascends during the blanket toss finals at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Tahbone won first place in the women’s Blanket Toss competition, first place in women’s Indian Stick Pull, first place in Eskimo Fur Regalia, second place in Fish Cutting and second place in Seal Skinning. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
a person kicks a ball suspended in the air
Amber Vaska of Fairbanks takes her turn during the Two Foot High Kick finals at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Vaska won first for the Two Foot High Kick and second for One Foot High Kick for women. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
three people stand on a competition podium
Alaskan High Kick male first place Arnold Phillilp of Kwigillingok, second place Bernard Clark of Wasilla, and third place Kyle Worl of Juneau take the stage together at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
two people sitting behind a table selling their crafts
Carvers Vince Gregory and Eric Tetpon display their art at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
three people stand on a competition podium
The winners for the Indian style cloth regalia competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics were Lisa McNulty of North Pole (first place), Rigel Denny of Juneau (second place) and Gina Kalloch of Fairbanks (third place). Pictured modeling the regalia are Rigel Denny (left), McNulty’s daughter Kalissa (center) and Amber Taggart-Applebee (right). (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
two kids, accompanied by an adult, model their regalia
Ida Rexford won second and third place for the Eskimo fur regalia competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Pictured are Rexford and her two children modeling her work. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
a person models regalia
Cingarkaq Peter-Raboff won third place for the Eskimo style cloth competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
a person on stage performs while wearing a headdress made of neon zip ties
Allison Akootchook Warden, also known as AKU-MATU, performs a song at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Warden was also the emcee Thursday night. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
an elder and a pageant winner pose for a photo behind a seal oil lamp
Sophie Nothstine (left) and Geneva Wright pose for a photo during the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Nothstine said she was keeping the seal oil lamp lit for the games. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
people eating maktak during a maktak eating competition
Jane Snyder (center) watches Conrad Olin finish maktak during the maktak eating competition at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Walter Lord, Jr. is in the background. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
three people stand on a competition podium
Maktak eating competition first place Donna Rexford of Anchorage, second place Diane DuFour of Fairbanks and third place Corinne Danner of Utqiaġvik take the stage at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
a person dances while others drum on an arena floor
Carl Topkok dances with the Ilakus Drum Group at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
people in regalia drum and dance on an arena floor
Miss WEIO 2019-2020 Geneva Wright leads a combined group of Tanana and Minto dancers at the 2021 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
a group of women in traditional regalia stand on stage
Kaliksuna Autumn Madison (left) was named 2021 Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics on Friday. Other finalists are Ashley Luke of Healy Lake (center left), Lucy Gordon of Utqiaġvik (center right) and Laura Ekada of Nulato (right). (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
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