Native Youth Olympics Carry on Traditions of Strength, Endurance, and Good Sportsmanship
Each year, approximately 2,000 students statewide take part in Native Youth Olympics junior and senior games, athletic contests based on skills crucial to Alaska Natives people’s traditional way of life. More than just a display of athletic prowess, the events focus on promoting healthy lifestyles, positive self-esteem, leadership skills, and good sportsmanship through friendly athletic competition.
Now in its 51st year, Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) has been hosting the games since 1986, and NYO remains an active program within its Youth Empowerment Services Department.
“Our CITC staff, along with volunteers, provide all of the logistical and event planning support, fundraising, and marketing and promotion for the event and related activities each year,” says Tim Blum, senior marketing and communications specialist for CITC. “It’s a huge effort.”
Native Youth Olympics got its start in 1971 when a group of students in the Boarding Home Program school in Anchorage couldn’t return home for Christmas break.
“Some families couldn’t afford to fly their children back to their communities for the holidays, and one of the host parents asked the students what they would do if they were home,” explains Nicole Johnson, Native Youth Olympics ambassador and head official. “The students said that they would play these traditional games, and that became the start of the first NYO, which would take place later that spring.”
In its first year, twelve schools participated, with athletes coming in from Sitka and Nome. The number increased each year, and now students from more than 100 communities throughout Alaska, and even a team from Canada, attend.
The games right before COVID-19 hit attracted NYO’s highest number of athletes ever, Johnson says, with 493 athletes from Alaska and a small team from Whitehorse participating in the Senior Games. In-person games were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, yet 280 students from across Alaska participated virtually in the 2021 senior games, as did 140 junior NYO athletes.
Students participate in two separate events: the junior games held each winter, and the senior games held each April. Junior athletes are in grades 1-6, split into three age divisions, and senior athletes are in grades 7-12. “As students get older, the games get harder,” says Johnson.
The games are based on traditional skills needed for hunting and fishing, with a priority placed on athletes’ willingness to help one another.
Depending on whether they are competing at the junior or senior level, athletes may take part in up to ten events: the Alaskan high kick, two-foot high kick, one-foot high kick, one-hand reach, seal hop, scissor broad jump, arm pull, Eskimo stick pull, kneel jump, and wrist carry.
“All of the games are played for a reason. These include building strength, agility, endurance, and concentration,” says Johnson. “Before today’s modern amenities, we needed to rely on these skills to survive, moving from one area to the next over the seasons. We had to be strong enough to provide for our families and to carry small and large loads over long distances.”
The Eskimo stick pull, for example, builds strength so that hunters can pull seals out of the water. The seal hop simulates seals hopping across ice, as hunters stalk the animals. The scissor broad jump helps develop the skills needed for jumping across streams and rivers or cracks in thawing ice.
“When you’re out hunting on the ocean, you have to be quick and agile and coordinated to jump,” says Johnson.
The one- and two-foot high kicks were used as a form of communication, similar to long-distance sign language. “If you were looking at someone a mile away, you could tell from their body position and one-foot high kick that their hunting party had been successful,” she explains. “If they did a two-foot kick, it meant that the hunt had been unsuccessful.”
Johnson earned her fame in the two-foot kick, setting a world record in 1989 by tapping her toes on a sealskin ball suspended 6 feet 6 inches off the ground. Her record stood for twenty-five years.
The kneel jump was designed to help hunters jump up quickly when danger approached. “If you were butchering an animal on the tundra and bears came, you had to be able to get up quickly,” says Johnson.
The arm pull game was played to see who was strongest and had the most endurance, and the wrist carry was created to build strength and endurance while carrying heavy loads. “The wrist carry is also a team event with both athletes carrying another athlete on a stick; they have to work together,” says Johnson.
While the strength and endurance games were traditionally only played by men, everyone can take part at NYO.
“Everybody can find a game they can excel in, no matter what their size or weight or age,” says Johnson. “They are really just competing to have fun. The biggest attraction of the games is that it creates a unique sense of community and family; everyone is there to support each other and to do their best.”
The Eskimo stick pull is an event that simulates pulling a seal out of the water.
“Why Do We Play?”
According to the NYO website, the games are about achieving a personal best more than beating the competition; they are the only sporting event in the world where competing athletes help each other to be successful in the games and in life.
“It is nothing like Western sports—there’s no yelling and screaming, and it’s not overly competitive,” Johnson says. “Everyone there cheers for everyone else, just like in any traditional Native sports competition. To survive in the past, everyone had to work together, and we want to pass on that sense of community and sportsmanship in these games.”
While many communities hold smaller events throughout the year, the statewide events for both junior and senior athletes are held in Anchorage each year.
“The Kenaitze Indian tribe, for example, has an annual event in Kenai or Soldotna; Homer has an annual event, as does the Chickaloon tribe,” says Johnson. “The Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts an event in April, and some of these groups may use these events to determine who they will bring to the state event.”
At the state competition, three boys and three girls per age group are allowed to compete at the junior level for each region, community, or tribe, and they are allowed to bring one male and one female competitor to the senior level event.
The junior events take place over three days, with a separate age group participating each day. The senior level events are not divided into age groups.
“The senior events are based on nature; nature doesn’t live by age groups or weight groups,” says Johnson.
While every athlete likes to win, Johnson says that the focus of NYO is to have fun.
“A handful of athletes may believe that the main goal is to get a gold medal, but on their way there, they’re still learning sportsmanship skills,” says Johnson. “And coaches and officials will ask them, ‘Why do we play?’
“It’s a gentle reminder that we’re all here to have fun, compete, and do our best, and that bad sportsmanship is not allowed,” she adds. “Good sportsmanship is encouraged, and that act carries through to adulthood.”
An athlete participates in the two-foot high kick while others provide encouragement.
Corporate and Community Support
Native Youth Olympics are funded completely through sponsorships and donations, with no funding provided by any state or federal agency. For this reason, many Alaska businesses have stepped up to help fund the program, which not only benefits the athletes but the businesses themselves.
“Many companies like being affiliated with such an important and cherished tradition; it’s a big thing for our community,” says Kelly Hurd, senior director of development at Cook Inlet Tribal Council. “It’s a huge convening that I liken to a mini-AFN [Alaska Federation of Natives convention]. More than 5,000 spectators from more than 100 communities across the state came to our last event.”
Not only does this provide major recognition for sponsors, which include GCI, ConocoPhillips Alaska, First National Bank of Alaska, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Southcentral Foundation, Cook Inlet Region, Inc. and more, but it also enables them to extend their reach into rural communities.
“Having your name affiliated with NYO has a deep impact in our communities, because you’re recognized as making them a safer and healthier place to be,” says Hurd. “You are also uplifting Alaska Native culture and promoting tradition and diversity.”
As the host of NYO, CITC raises about $250,000 each year to fund its programs. The money is used both for hosting the junior and senior games and for training in communities.
“Nicole Johnson is such an amazing ambassador for NYO,” says Hurd. “She does a lot of that work, going out to schools throughout the state and educating them about the games. She provides a lot of instruction to new teachers and coaches about how the games are performed, which is so important to recruiting new members to the NYO community and keeping these traditions alive and vibrant.”
Companies can come in at different levels of sponsorship, and because it is a cultural event, contributors can also benefit from an educational tax credit.
“Many of our sponsors have been loyal supporters for years; it’s an event they truly believe in,” says Hurd. “They also recognize that NYO is a training ground for tomorrow’s leaders—it’s a great way to invest in young people, lift them up, and help form tomorrow’s workforce by giving them these opportunities to succeed.”
In addition to sponsorship perks, those who help support NYO also get “Kids come from different parts of the state and learn all about the resources available to keep them healthy, as well as workforce, school, and military opportunities,” says Hurd. “It is also an amazing opportunity for youth to come together from all corners of the state to build partnerships and friendships. It’s something they look forward to each year; it’s the highlight of their academic year.”
Unlike most sporting events, NYO follows up with participants to validate its high-minded aims. A survey each year measures the impact that being involved with NYO has on Alaska’s Native youth and communities.
“We get back really compelling statistics,” says Hurd. “NYO helps students stay in school and helps them create connections with coaches and other students. They are living healthier lifestyles.”
Statistics show that NYO influences young people to improve academic performance, strengthens their overall health and well-being, and instills important values, including leadership and respect. According to the most recent survey, 206 participating athletes reduced substance use, and 85 percent saw themselves as role models for other NYO athletes. Approximately 93 percent learned about Alaska Native cultures and values, and 74 percent kept better grades in school in order to participate.
Eden Hopson, winner of the 2022 girls’ one-foot high kick, goes for her winning kick.
Eden Hopson hugs her coach and mom, Joanna Hopson, after landing her winning one-foot high kick.
Coaches and team members cheer the athletes during the 2022 seal hop event.
“We want to thank our partners for their support over the years; we couldn’t do the games without them,” says Hurd. “We appreciate that these businesses—as well as the many individual donors who participate—are making an investment in our community. They are uplifting our kids.”
This year’s junior NYO games will take place from February 24-26, 2023 at a site not yet determined at press time. The senior NYO games will take place on April 20-22, 2023 at the Alaska Airlines Center at UAA. All games are free and open to the public.
“People who are not familiar with traditions of Alaska Native culture will learn a lot about why we play these games, where they came from, and what they promote,” says Johnson. “People outside of our culture who come to watch are always amazed at how everyone helps each other. There’s a sense of camaraderie that athletes have with each other on the floor.”
That camaraderie earned the NYO Games a spot in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
“Every year, someone comes up to me and says they’ve never seen such a thing in their life,” Johnson adds. “I’ve been told that Western sports could learn a few things from this.”