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The games that are played display the preparedness one needed for survival. They require skill as well as strength, agility, and endurance. In this manner, the people could teach their children that they had to be tough to make it on their own, not just in one area, but in all. The games left no part of the body untested.
In the past, whenever there was a gathering of families or villages, there were feasts, dances, and games. Often, when these gatherings took place, a messenger was sent to neighboring villages to extend a formal invitation. Today, these games are played in rural communities during the Fourth of July and Christmas holidays.
To better appreciate the background of these games, envision yourself in a community village shelter three hundred years ago with the temperature outside at 60 degrees below zero, with everybody in attendance celebrating a successful seal hunt. While the young men are demonstrating their athletic prowess and strength, the umialiks, or whaling captains, are on the perimeter of the gathering place looking with great interest at the young adults - one or more of these young men would be incorporated into their whaling and hunting crews - the fastest, the strongest, the one showing great balance and endurance to pain would be the top pick.
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.
For time immemorial, Native peoples of the circumpolar areas of the world have gathered in 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 making new friendships. This is the background of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the atmosphere, which we seek to replicate.
In 1961, the City of Fairbanks, through the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, sponsored the World Eskimo Olympics as a segment of the emerging Golden Days Celebration. The chamber's involvement continued through the 1969 games. The late A. E. "Bud" Hagberg and Frank Whaley, Wien Airways employees, who are credited as the organizers of the World Eskimo Olympics; co-chaired the first several events, while Bill English and Tom Richards, Sr., pilots of the airlines, served as emcees. The rapidly developing State of Alaska, along with the influence of non-Native cultures in rural Alaska, led to a fear the games might be forgotten and not passed on and shared with others.
Four Eskimo dance groups, two Indian dance groups, along with competitors in the high-kick, blanket toss, seal skinning, and Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen Contest participated that first year. Exhibitions on the teeter board and Eskimo "piggy back" baby buggy show rounded out the short program. From this beginning, a diverse and complex format encompassing four days was born.
In 1970, Tundra Times, the only statewide Native newspaper in Alaska, by mutual agreement with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, took over sponsorship of the growing event. It was viewed by the Tundra Times Board of Directors as a potential fundraiser to assist the newspaper in its mission; defined by the late Howard Rock, founder and editor, to aid the Alaska Native movement toward better solutions to the problems they confronted for decades.
In 1973, the Board of Directors of the Tundra Times passed a resolution changing the name of the World Eskimo Olympics to World Eskimo-Indian Olympics to more accurately reflect the ethnicity of the participants.
Each year record-breaking crowds, record-breaking performances by the athletes, an increasing number of competitors, and larger numbers of villages sending dance groups and athletes to the Games proved to be a challenge to the sponsoring organization. In 1976, an independent, non-profit corporation was formed for the sole purpose of a planning, preparing, and staging the annual event. The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Inc. is a 501-(c)(3) organization run by a dedicated group of supporters and volunteers.
Gate proceeds, merchandise sales, and donations from friends and corporate partners provide revenue and services to cover expenses of the annual event, and run the business of the organization.
Throughout its over 60 year history, the organizers of WEIO have seen print and film crews from all over the globe. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan, People and USA Today, have offered articles on the WEIO Games. Some of the participants have been on nationwide television shows such as Good Morning America, the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, CNN, ESPN and the Tonight Show. Many international television programs have done specials starring the people, athletes and events of the WEIO. Strange as these games may be to some, the organizers strive to present these games as an important connection to our traditional cultures; rich with history, stories, and spirituality.
Four awards are given each year as a tribute for contributions to WEIO. They are the A. E. "Bud" Hagberg Memorial Sportsmanship Athletic Award - chosen by the athletes this award is presented to the competitor exemplifying the spirit of good sportsmanship; the Howard Rock Memorial Outstanding Athlete Award based on a point system and awarded to the best all around athlete; the Frank Whaley Award for Outstanding Contributions is presented to the individual or corporation acknowledging their contributions of time, money and effort and the Olive Anderson Volunteer Award given to an individual or group recognizing outstanding volunteer efforts.
Survival for the Native people of Alaska has been the name of the games for as long as our elders can recollect. When listening to them tell of their early life, it sometimes seems inconceivable they managed at all. These stories constantly reiterate the need to be disciplined physically as well as mentally, to share, cooperate and hold a reverence for the source which makes it possible to survive in an environment which is severe in every sense of the word. These people lived off what nature provided. They hunted, fished, and gathered plants for food, clothing, and medicinal purposes. In all of these instances they had to be strong and agile, and able to endure beyond normal limits of strength and pain. In winter or summer one had to prepare to be tested at any moment and to fail could easily be the difference between life and death.
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