Games Keep Culture Alive
Listening to the booming voice of World Eskimo-Indian Olympics emcee “Big Bob” Aiken of Barrow, you’d never know the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) Games began as an attempt to revive a dying tradition found in quiet rural Alaska life.
In fact, the games celebrate the physical skills required for Natives to survive in the arctic such as the blanket toss – based on a traditional practice of tossing people high above the horizon on walrus skin blankets so they could scout for whales in the distance; the scissors broad jump – helpful in negotiating moving ice floes; the two-foot high kick, one hand reach, Alaska high kick, knee jump and many more. A perennial favorite on the last night of the competition is the white men vs. Native women tug of war.
Today, the games are a mainstay on the calendars of Native people from Southeast Alaska to the arctic north. Thousands of athletes, families and friends – as well as visitors – gather each summer in Fairbanks to watch the games. And while WEIO is very much an athletic competition, you’ll also find Native arts and crafts for sale, witness the powerful drumbeat of ancient song and dance and glimpse the social fabric that holds Alaska’s Native people together.
WEIO began in 1961, shortly after Alaska became a state. The rapidly growing state and changing culture prompted several employees of the now-defunct Wein Airways to organize the first games in an effort to preserve the powerful community aspect that gatherings like WEIO provide for Native people. The first games were sponsored by the City of Fairbanks. Since then, the games have grown and WEIO is now a nonprofit entity that exists solely to organize and execute the games.
The weeklong event takes place annually in mid-July, and is held at Fairbanks’ Big Dipper Ice Arena. The games are staged on the rink floor, and food, crafts and other curiosities line the walkway that circles the rink above the seating area. Other contests not to be missed include the Native Regalia competition, which features fine needlecraft and beadwork in a fashion show of traditional Native garb, the Native baby competition and, of course, the Miss WEIO competition.