Exploring the diversity and cultural treasure of Alaska’s Native populations is a drum I beat frequently with visiting families. Our state’s first residents, with traditions going back thousands of years, offer so much richness and light to an Alaskan experience that anyone, visitor or resident, would be remiss to bypass their offerings.
One such opportunity to breathe in a lifelong tradition of teaching, learning, and doing is through the Native Youth Olympics, kicking off Friday morning at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage. In its 41st year of bringing together young people from every corner of Alaska for three days of spirited competition, NYO is charged with not only providing ‘tweens and teens a chance to prove their athletic ability, but their responsibility as well.
Open to any youth in grades 6-12, NYO begins in a kid’s own community, where training and local events lead up to qualifying for the Olympics (or “State Games”) in Anchorage. According to Kelly Hurd, Development Director for Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Inc., the organizing agency for the Games, some 700 youth will converge upon Anchorage for the 2011 contest. Some have never left their villages. Some have little support at home. All are enthusiastic, ready, and charged up for what might be the most exciting weekend of their lives.
With events known as the Stick Pull, Seal Hop, and High Kick, it is evident from the schedule of events that this is no ordinary athletic endeavor. Each individual effort reflects a particular skill necessary for surviving in Alaska’s rugged and remote areas, and each would traditionally be taught by an elder of the community. It is, perhaps for some Native youth, one of the last connections of their culture left in a high-tech, fast-paced, strange world of the 21st century.
NYO is open to all children, being Native is not a requirement, and youth of all ethnic backgrounds participate each year. Attributes of respect, dedication, and perseverance predominate; support of one’s teammates means success no matter the overall outcome. In fact, sportsmanship and team spirit are so deeply valued that an award is presented to the team displaying the highest form of such behavior.
The Native Youth Olympics are one of the finest events a family could attend for a glimpse into rural communities. NYO organizers have taken broad steps to create a more festival-type atmosphere in 2011, with music, a cultural and craft fair, and free admission to the entire weekend’s slate of events. While the Games themselves do provide the catalyst, it is the peripheral support from family, friends, and the tribal communities themselves that make NYO sing.
If you have the chance, pass through the Anchorage Museum, too, and wander the beautiful exhibits explaining Alaska’s Native populations, their history, and transformative efforts to retain traditions for future generations. Mark your calendar for May 7-8, too, when the Alaska Native Heritage Center hosts an opening day celebration for the 2011 summer season. Drumming, dancing, food, and spectacular costumes will provide everyone of every age the sights and sounds of Alaska. Don’t miss a tour of the authentic dwellings outside, and a children’s art area where kids can create a masterpiece explaining their point of view. Heads up: purchase a Culture Pass at either place and receive a discount on admission, or consider a membership to the Museum. At $90 per family, it’s an easy way to support exhibits and programs that benefit the entire body of our state.
Immersing ourselves and our kids into our state’s Alaska Native landscape is a valuable experience not limited to tourists. It is all of us; and whether we attend the Native Youth Olympics this weekend or attend opening day festivities at the Native Alaska Heritage Center, our kids will learn something. We might, too.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council website has a complete schedule of the Native Youth Olympics. The opening ceremonies commence at 9:30 a.m. Friday morning and the games wrap up Sunday afternoon. All times are approximate, however, so be flexible.