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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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Robert Okpeaha Jr. is the Cyrano de Bergerac of ears. His ears are the size of saucers and feature folds of cartilage as thick as drinking straws. They're separated from his head by at least an inch of ear canal. They are protrusions befitting the 10-time ear-pull champion of the world.

Ear-pulling, for those unfamiliar with the activity, is a tug-of-war involving the ears. Two competitors sit facing each other, legs locked, heads about two feet apart. A loop of string is placed around the right ear of one contestant and the left ear of the other. They pull their heads straight back until one person succumbs to the pain, twisting his or her head to release the string. This takes from 10 seconds to several minutes. Best of three wins the match, with ears alternated from pull to pull.

The ear-pull is one of the glamour events at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, the 35th edition of which took place in July at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Eskimo-Indian Olympics are the largest yearly gathering of Native Alaskans and Canadians, with more than 500 athletes and dancers competing in 24 events over four days. While most of the sports are unknown outside native cultures, for peoples of the extreme north they are far more important than any game that will be played in Atlanta next summer. As Okpeaha prepared for the ear-pull finals, the last event of the second day, 4,000 spectators urged him and his opponent on, shouting in English, Yupik, Tlingit and half a dozen other tongues.

Like most of the events at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics, the ear-pull is based on ancient survival and hunting skills. It was developed to toughen hunters' ears so they could endure extended periods in the Arctic cold. Ears are highly susceptible to frostbite. The hardier one's ears, the reasoning went, the longer one would be able to hunt—and, by extension, the better the tribe would eat. Hence the ear-pull.

Apart from his magnificent ears, Okpeaha is a small man, about 5'5", with a shock of black hair and a sharply down-turned nose. He is an Inupiaq Eskimo from Barrow, the northernmost community in the U.S., a place where the sun does not rise all winter and temperatures of 60� below zero are common. There is an air of mystery about him. He appears to be in his late 40's but divulges few personal details. "I'm probably the oldest competitor here" is about all he'll let on, "and I'm not going to retire until somebody beats me."

No need to worry about that. Okpeaha's opponent in the finals, 23-year-old Richard Egnaty of Sleetmute, Alaska, hardly stood a chance. Okpeaha removed his plastic-framed eyeglasses, slipped the twine behind his right ear and narrowed his eyes. Then he calmly began to pull. Within seconds, Egnaty's ear was so scrunched it looked like a morel mushroom. It went from pink to crimson to a dark purple. Okpeaha's ear seemed hardly disturbed. Egnaty's facial muscles strained. Okpeaha didn't even wince.

"These are the longest seconds of Richard's life," said Asta Keller, winner of an eighth straight women's ear-pull title earlier in the day. "For two weeks it will feel like there's fire in his ears." The 33-year-old Keller—whose ears appear entirely ordinary—comes from a long line of ear-pullers. "My grandfather was an ear-pull wizard," she said. But she warns against pulling too hard. Her brother once received a gash behind his ear that required seven stitches.

At least once in competition, an ear has been pulled off completely. But in this year's men's final no serious damage occurred. Okpeaha won in two quick pulls to earn his 10th title. Egnaty stumbled out of the arena moaning, hands cupped over his ears.

The Eskimo-Indian Olympics began in 1961 as a way to preserve native games in regions where traditional lifestyles were being encroached on by modern society. The games are open to anyone of at least 25% blood connection to one of the eight Native Alaskan or Native Canadian groups: the Aleut, Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos; and the Tsimshian, Haida, Athabascan, Eyak and Tlingit Indians.

Two types of games are played at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics: those that require balance and dexterity, and those that inflict pain and suffering. (Ear-pulling, obviously, falls in the latter category.) The balance-and-dexterity events are rooted in the need for subsistence hunters in boreal regions to maintain fitness and flexibility during the long winters. After all, hopping across ice floes in pursuit of seals and polar bears demands impeccable balance. (Toppling into frigid seas means almost certain death.) The pain-and-suffering contests evolved from the need to be rugged enough to live comfortably in the far north.

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