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Playing with Tradition
Michael Finkel
October 02, 1995
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics celebrate age-old Native American sports
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October 02, 1995

Playing With Tradition

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics celebrate age-old Native American sports

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The crowd favorite of the balance-and-dexterity events is the blanket toss. It involves one competitor and about 50 or so volunteers from the crowd, who grab handles sewn along the edge of a blanket that is 18 feet in diameter and then pull and relax it to create a rhythmic beat. The blanket, made from the dried skin of bearded seals and stitched together with caribou sinew, is about �-inch thick and strong enough to bear the weight of the contestant, who stands in the center of the blanket, riding its dips and waves. On command from the blanket master, the pullers give an especially hard tug, and the athlete is flung skyward, sometimes 25 or 30 feet. A committee of judges scores the competitor on height attained, form, grace in flight, and smoothness of landing. "You want to appear as elegant as a gull," said one judge. Historically, the blanket toss was used for spotting whales over obstructive banks of ice.

"The secret to good jumping is to internalize the beat of the blanket, to feel it in your legs," said Roy Katairoak, 42, this year's blanket master. "The blanket is not a trampoline. If you're not in perfect sync with it, you won't soar."

This year's best jumpers, Michele Brower, 19, of Barrow, and Rex Snyder, 25, from North Pole, Alaska, rose straight up, as if riding a geyser. Their arms waved gently; their legs slowly bicycled. At their zeniths, each performed a split or a spin or saluted the crowd—then dropped onto the blanket, landing on both feet.

With less-skilled athletes or blanket-pullers, tosses can go awry and the jumper can be thrown far from the blanket. When this happens, a scream from the crowd arises, followed by a mad dash of pullers racing across the arena floor like firemen with a jump net to catch the jumper. Each off-kilter competitor at this year's Olympics was caught, though sometimes just barely. It seemed a miracle that no one was injured.

The other balance-and-dexterity games take place closer to earth. One series of events requires athletes to kick or touch a ball suspended by a string from a wooden stand; the ball, made of sealskin, is raised progressively until one competitor remains. In the one-foot high kick, the leap, kick and landing are performed with one foot—the other foot must never touch the ground. In the two-foot high kick, the ball is batted with both feet simultaneously. In the Alaska high kick, the competitor starts in a yoga-like position, balanced on one foot and one hand, and springs upward off that foot, kicking the ball with the other.

The pain games are something else altogether. The crowd-pleasing four-man carry was designed to prepare hunters for the arduous task of hauling heavy carcasses back to their villages. An athlete in the four-man carry must haul four people—each weighing about 150 pounds—as far as possible on a track laid out on the arena floor. The people to be carried wrap themselves around the carrier, who lifts the load and walks until he collapses beneath it, in a football-like pileup.

Though the four-man carry attracts burly competitors, it is actually a technique event: Skillful balance and positioning of the load eclipse brute strength. This year's winner, with a 145-foot carry, was Chris Benson, a 22-year-old Aleut from Anchorage. Benson, who weighs all of 175 pounds, has won the carry three times. This year he trained by moving a friend's piano around.

The knuckle hop is even more masochistic. Designed to inure hands to the pain of frostbite, the hop mimicks a seal climbing onto an ice floe. To start the event the athlete assumes a push-up position, but with hands curled into fists. Only knuckles and toes may touch the ground. Then he or she must bounce forward on the hard arena floor, maintaining the pushup position. More often than not the competitor leaves a thin trail of blood from split knuckles.

But it is the Olympics' grand finale—the ear-weight competition—that is most excruciating to watch. The rules are simple: dangle 16 pounds of weight from a piece of twine hung around your ear and walk, hands clasped behind your back, as far as possible. When a human ear is forced to bear the weight of a shot put, things get ugly—even uglier than in the ear-pull.

Not surprisingly, ear-pullers excel at the ear weight. In Fairbanks most of the top pullers took a turn at the weight, walking until they seemed to be on the verge of passing out. Their distances ranged from five inches to several hundred feet. Then Okpeaha, the ear almighty, stepped up. He cleaned off the back of his left ear using his T-shirt and then hung the weight. He began to walk, taking slow, deliberate steps, eyes focused downward, a small smirk on his face. At 500 feet the great ear turned violet. At 1,000 it began to droop. At 1,500 it looked like a piece of cauliflower. At 1,714—59 feet beyond his closest competitor's carry—Okpeaha stopped, hanging his head to release the weight.

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