Published on August 8th, 2015 | by Jen McClellan0
Native Alaskans Teach Community
Freshly back in the smoggy embrace of LA from the volcanic expansiveness of Alaska, a rolling image shoots through my head. It is of the thick endless forests of tall spruce and the we-mean-serious-business rainclouds that flowed in continuum by the car window as we drove from town to town. Thoughts too occupy this space. Thoughts about microaggressions (unintentional treatment that makes a distinction against a person based on the group, class, or category to which that person belongs rather than on individual merit) that have occurred or still occur in Alaska.
I went to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska looking to write an article about microaggressions the natives’ experience, but when I arrived in the quietly busy gymnasium at the start of the games, my desire to have that dialogue with these people felt imposing. What was happening in Alaska felt bigger than unintentional discrimination.
My friend and Alaskan-born host, Marcella, and I took our seats and watched as the stick-pull event was underway. The weight of the knowledge of how the U.S. had followed Russia into Alaska and the native people’s lands — to build American homesteads, to come with guns, to build gold mines, fisheries, English-only schools, missions, and oil sites — kept me in my seat; told me to be quiet and observe.
These Olympics were unlike any sporting event I’d ever been a part of. For example, I remember my club soccer days where parents and coaches would be screaming at us girls on the field. Their faces would be red and by the end of the game their throats would be hoarse and they’d be nearly as tired as we were from playing. I remember girls crying over lost matches. The sense of competition and the need to win was so intense. The feeling at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics was such a contrast to that.
I read in Amanda Bohman’s article Christian missionaries learn Alaska Native Values at WEIO in the Sunday, July 12, 2015 issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
“Scott Smith runs the YWAM (Christian service organization) office in Homer, Alaska. He has learned from volunteering at the games about the ‘patience and quiet confidence of Alaska Native people,’ how ’If someone needs to talk with you, they will come to where you are and have a low-keyed conversation with you rather than shouting for your attention from across the building,’ reverence for elders, good sportsmanship and ‘how participants will stop and coach one another and offer mentorship even though they are competing.'”
I saw this communication during the stick-pull as four matches were underway on the basketball courts. You could hardly tell from the stands who was competing and who was a family member, fellow competitor, judge, or otherwise. The floor of the gym was a mass of encouraging coaches. I watched a father sitting five feet from his son who was wrestling his opponent for the stick (the stick-pull imitates the struggle one faces when wrestling a fish out of water with ones bare hands) while two smaller boys climbed over his back with playful familiarity.
As I walked around the right half of the floor, which was a temporary marketplace of craft tables covered with jewelry, paintings, fur clothing, sculptures and all sorts of other creative arts, I found my body warmed with a sense of happiness that I usually feel upon coming home after a long trip.
I bought earrings from a woman named Patty Jacobus. I told her I read about Kenai (the town south of Anchorage that I stayed in) that when the U.S. came and built schools they took the native children away from their family and culture and forced them to learn English and Americanized education. I asked her if she’d experienced something like that.
She answered, “I was taken in by the missionaries, in an orphanage because my mother had passed away and we weren’t allowed to speak our own language, but later on we were gradually allowed to. I didn’t have a bad experience. They took me in as a baby–that’s all I knew was the mission. Other older students had a hard time.”
I felt like the conflict I was searching for here, was generations old, and that all that remained now was strength. The Eskimos were sponsored by the local unions, they were doing the whale-skin blanket toss in a high school gymnasium, and there were people from as far as Australia who had come to be a part of their communal celebration. And I say “to be a part of” rather than spectate because even those of us sitting in the bleachers were drawn into the games. During the native dancing I was on the floor clapping and stomping my feet. During the two foot high kick, when the male competitor was attempting to kick a ball hovering 101 inches off the ground with both his feet, the whole gymnasium was boomingly engaged in a slow clap.
While wandering the craft booths I heard an elder ask a young woman wearing seal and fox head to toe who made her outfit. She answered, “my grandmother.”
“And who is your grandmother?” Asked the elder. The young woman showed the elder to her grandmother. While I didn’t get to talk to anyone about their environmental practices and weather or not those conflict with capitalist environmental practices of exploitation, the fact that this young woman’s grandmother hand-made this elegant and intricate outfit from animals hunted by another family member led me to conclude that these people are much more careful and spiritual when interacting with their ecosystem.
I also ran into Miss WEIO 2014, decked out in skin, fur and beads of beauty. I asked Chanda Rae Anguturluq Simon why the games were of cultural significance to her:
“This is important to me culturally because there’s a lot of the different cultures from all over Alaska. It’s a big area so there’s a lot of differences and a lot of similarities and here you can really bring those together and appreciate them with a lot of the different dancing, the artwork, the native games and events — the Miss WEIO pageant and the spirit of the games here at WEIO is really competition not against each other but being better than you were before and that’s also what the Miss WEIO pageant is all about and so I’m really excited to see who the new Miss WEIO is going to be.”
Back at Sophie Station (our hotel) after the games, I read the History of WEIO article from the WEIO 2015 program:
“The first World Eskimo Olympics was held in Fairbanks in 1961, drawing contestants and dance teams from Barrow, Unalakleet, Tanana, Fort Yukon, Noorvik and Nome. The event was a big success and has been held annually ever since.
Native peoples of the circumpolar areas of the world have always gathered in their small villages to participate in games of strength, endurance, balance, and agility. Along with these athletic games, dancing, storytelling, and other audience participation games took place. This provided an opportunity for friendly competition, entertainment and laughter. The hosts provided food and lodging, and visitors brought news from surrounding villages and expanded opportunities for challenge building and renewing old and new friendships. This is the background of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the atmosphere which we seek to replicate.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the 2015 WEIO was a success, because although I did not have the city-born, wordy, political dialogue I had imagined I might have, I learned everything WEIO wanted to teach me. And it is the same thing I learn every time I have encountered native people from Alaska down through California — resilience is not harbored in resentment, violence, or agitation … resilience lies in family and community. Natives continue to suffer oppressions under capitalism, from microaggressions perpetuated by schools or missions to the environmental abuse intrusive fishing, hunting, mining, and drilling practices incur, but the rituals, ceremonies, and bonds they practice are something we can all take note of when thinking about our organizing spaces.