“Alaska Native games are viewed as a big part of our heritage — not just our sports history, but of our state’s culture.”
In 1971, a handful of ninth-grade students, relocated from their villages to Anchorage and searching for a way to stay connected with their homes and culture, entertained themselves by playing traditional games of strength and agility. Those games would lead to the first Native Youth Olympics (NYO).
Forty-five years later, NYO draws more than 600 students from across the state to compete in traditional Alaska Native games and celebrate Alaska Native culture.
This year, NYO celebrates more than an anniversary. On July 29, NYO will be inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
“Alaska Native games are viewed as a big part of our heritage — not just our sports history, but of our state’s culture,” said Harlow Robinson, the hall of fame’s executive director. “Given that, NYO was considered a great candidate for induction.”
Each year, the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame inducts a small number of individuals, sports moments, and sporting events, voted on by a nine-member panel and a public vote. NYO was the only event chosen for induction this year, joining two individuals — both Olympic track and field athletes — and two sports moments. All five honorees will also be recognized at the hall’s 10-year anniversary celebration, open to the public, on July 28, at the Alaska Airlines Center.
Life at those 1970s boarding schools was tough. Kids from rural villages found themselves isolated and often homesick for the entire school year. They lived with unfamiliar families who didn’t share their culture. Most students eventually dropped out of the program. Those left behind struggled to find something that reminded them of home.
So they played games like the one-foot high kick and the kneel jump — games that would inspire the first NYO, organized by boarding school teachers and led by Sarah Hanuske, a coordinator for the state’s boarding home program.
When the first NYO was held back in the ’70s, about 100 students traveled to Anchorage from just a dozen schools from cities and villages like Sitka, Nome, and Kotzebue. That first competition lasted only one afternoon, but it radically changed how Alaska Native games were viewed.
“These games aren’t just for Native kids; they’re for all of the kids in Alaska,” said Nicole Johnston, Lead NYO Official. “It’s a competition that breaks down barriers between cultures and shares the traditions of the Native people of Alaska. It brings all kids together to share a friendly, competitive experience.”
Rooted in tradition
Today, NYO — along with its little sister, Junior NYO, in which students in grades one through six compete — impacts more than 2,000 Alaskan youth each year. At NYO, over 50 teams representing more than 100 Alaskan communities flock to Anchorage to demonstrate their physical strength and mental fortitude in events like the Seal Hop, the Alaskan High Kick, and the Wrist Carry — games that reflect competitions and exercises practiced by Alaskans over hundreds of years to hone the skills needed to live a subsistence way of life.
For instance, the Seal Hop requires young athletes to bounce on their knuckles and toes, their body parallel to the floor, as they move across the gym. Decades ago, hunters used this movement to stalk seals across the ice, getting as close as possible before harpooning their prey.
“They’re games that help you stay healthy — physically and mentally preparing you for endurance,” Johnston explained. “They prepare you to be mentally tough, not just for survival back then, but for success today.”
There’s also a game for everyone, she pointed out. Small athletes may excel at the Wrist Carry, which requires a competitor to hang by her wrist from a stick carried over a distance by two teammates, while the Alaskan High Kick requires strength, focus, and balance as athletes balance on one hand while kicking a suspended sealskin ball with one foot.
More than just a game
But the aspect of NYO most commented upon by both participants and spectators is its supportive spirit.
“It’s competitive and there are amazing athletes, but there’s so much encouragement and guidance,” Robinson reflected. “There are competitors helping each other out, mentors throughout the gym, older legends of the sport there and accessible and helping all the athletes, regardless of what region of the state they’re from.”
This quality is also rooted in the tradition of the games, said Johnston. “NYO really builds a sense of community and teaches athletes to encourage everyone to do the best they can do. Traditionally, you had to rely on each other to survive. Today, it’s still important because if you don’t have a community that works well together, that community isn’t going to be successful.”
Robinson, who competed in the One-Foot High Kick and the Scissor Broad Jump as a high school student, added that including non-Native students in the games provides an opportunity for kids to share their cultures and grow a greater sense of empathy.
“I’m grateful for the experience in my own childhood, and I’ve always carried that with me,” he said. “I hope all kids in school around our state are being introduced to the games and have that opportunity to learn about and carry on those traditions.”
The impact on all participants of NYO goes beyond cultural literacy and physical health, though. In 1986, Cook Inlet Tribal Council took over hosting the games as part of the organization’s educational services, geared toward equipping young people with the tools they need to reach their potential — and that’s exactly what’s happening at NYO.
A 2015 survey of over 400 students found that 75 percent of NYO athletes felt participating in the games was incentive to stay in school, with 74 percent improving or maintaining good grades to stay involved. Seventy percent also indicated improved self-confidence.
“The selection panel talked about the spirit, camaraderie, and sportsmanship of the games, which are highly competitive, but have an energy and atmosphere you don’t see at most sporting events,” Robinson said of the hall of fame’s final decision to induct NYO. “NYO is unique and special, and that’s another reason it rose to the top.”