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Native Youth Olympics celebrate Indigenous culture and survival skills passed down generations

Antonia Gonzales
National Native News

Athletes, coaches, and spectators brought the energy and personality to the 2024 Native Youth Olympic Games (NYO). The games were held this spring in Anchorage, Alaska.

The traditional games, which were originally depended on for survival, continue to develop the strength, and skill of generations of Alaska Native people. The NYO carries on the games by encouraging young people to strive for their personal best.

“We know that learning these games are healthy for us. They're healthy for our body, our mind, and our souls,” said Kunaq Marjorie Tahbone, 2024 Native Youth Olympics emcee. “So that's why it's so important to do these games, learn about them, teach them, and continue the legacy of the Native Youth Olympics.”

Athletes in the 7th through 12th grades from across Alaska, tested their skills in 11 different competitions like the scissor broad jump, Eskimo stick pull, and one-hand reach.

Tahbone says the sport is unique, giving the example of the one-hand reach. She describes the game as being in awkward positions, like a “crazy yoga pose” with the participant trying to reach up and touch a ball.

Where did these games come from? Tahbone says their Indigenous ancestors who lived in a time where the conditions were harsh.

“Ice could break up in a matter of seconds and your body had to be able to take you out of those dangerous situations,” Tahbone said. “And so, really the development of these games were just to allow us to keep our bodies ready for that environment.”

The 2024 NYO emcee says that in the wintertime, especially if it was storming out, people would be in their traditional homes, and in those small spaces play the games.

Tahbone says not only did the games keep their spirits up, but also allowed people to keep their bodies fit for hunting and survival.

The Native Youth Olympics are like one big family to many of the participants. Some are new to the games, while others have been involved their entire life, including Adrianna Chalusiq Johnston, an NYO official.

“There's pictures of my mom pregnant with me competing,” Johnston said. “So, since before I was born, I've been here with the games.”

One of Johnston’s favorite games is the kneel Jump.

“It's just cool to see, you know, people jumping, you know, 40, 50 inches, even I think in the 60s,” Johnston said.

Competitors participate in the kneel jump.
Antonia Gonzales
National Native News
Competitors participate in the kneel jump.

The games teach pain tolerance, agility, balance, and concentration. They’re also friendly competitions where athletes can be seen coaching each other, cheering one another on, and girls and boys compete at the same time.

“I think it's really beneficial to just the community of the games to have the young athletes interacting with each other, teaching each other respect and compassion,” Johnston said.

And as far as the girls and boys showing their skills at the same time, Johnston says it’s unique to the sport. She says instead of the girls feeling like they’re pushed to the side, they're in an environment where the guys are competing right alongside them.

“I think it gives the girls more opportunity to be like, look at us, look what we're doing,” Johnston said. “It also gives the athletes, the male athletes, and the female athletes a chance to coach each other while they're competing as well.”

About 450 athletes from 57 teams from across the state participated in the 2024 games. Participant Sean Moonin placed first the toe kick at 80 inches.

“It's like you jump, you kick, hit the stick back. And then land,” Moonin said. “You got to keep your feet together and make sure they're aligned with the stick.”

Moonin says people competing are really supportive, and are always helpful. Some of the highlights he looks forward to at NYO are the cheers and claps.

Among those cheering on the athletes are the coaches. Jonathan Wilson is a coach for the Salamatof Tribe. He’s been coaching since 2013 and before that was a competitor.

“I mainly competed in the strength events. So, Indian stick pull, Eskimo stick pull, that was my thing,” Wilson said.

His team practices four days a week, for more than two hours.

“We usually go throughout the whole school year that's a bunch of time we put in with these kids,” Wilson said.

The games share Alaska Native culture, and both Native and non-Native students can learn and compete. For some, the games are also helping them reconnect with their Native roots, including a coach from Juneau, who’s originally from the Bethel area.

“I currently reside in Juneau, which is a different culture from Yup'ik, so it's Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian,” Kaytlynne Lewis said. “So, my upbringing was pretty touchy in terms of culture and like identity.”

Lewis says identity plays a big part in why it's so important to embrace one’s native culture and different traditions.

“You're already at that point in your life as a young adult trying to find a sense of who you are,” Lewis said. “And, I think knowing your roots, your language, your people, your community, pushes you to move past that like uncertainty.”

Athletes gather for the opening ceremonies for the Native Youth Olympics.
Antonia Gonzales
National Native News
Athletes gather for the opening ceremonies for the Native Youth Olympics.

Former high school players often continue to practice and play the games. They often take part in the Native Youth Olympics as volunteers and officials.

“I like learning about basically what people have been doing for me for so long,” Lydia Alverts, NYO official said. “Man, this is a lot of work. I’m really grateful for this and I like it’s kind of give back a little bit.”

As the games continue in the future, there is a lot to look forward to says the NYO coordinator.

“I hope NYO is in every community, each community can learn how to have their own games,” Adele Kuyuk Villa, NYO coordinator said. “It’s addictive.”

And for others, the games will always live on and are part of cultural revitalization efforts.

“We have it. It's here,” Tahbone said. “It's deeply rooted in our communities, which is something that maybe two generations ago wasn't able to say.”

Tahbone hopes the games also continue to grow and reach other places, including outside of Alaska.

“These games really are for the betterment of our community, for us to be thriving together as Indigenous people, and so really that's the hope is that we can just get it through all of the communities,” Tahbone said. “People feel empowered to play these traditional games and continue that.”