Traditional Games At Play in Juneau Event

By CLAIRE STREMPLE
Alaska Beacon
On a mat, two girls got into position: They stood side to side with their feet planted, facing opposite directions. A volunteer applied some shortening to a smooth stick and carefully placed it in their hands. At the sign — pull! — the girls attempted to wrest the stick from each other.
The Dené stick pull is one of 12 events at the Traditional Games in Juneau, a competition that precedes the Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage at the end of April. The greased stick is meant to simulate the slippery body and tail of a salmon and the yanking motion trains competitors to pull the fish swiftly from the water into the boat.

 

Anchorage competitor Matthew Chagluak inverts to connect with a suspended ball while he practices the Alaskan high kick in Juneau on April 7. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)


This year, more than 260 athletes signed up to compete in the Dené stick pull and other events that are based on the hunting and survival skills of Alaska Native people. Anyone is welcome to participate in the Games, including non-Native competitors, and teams from more than 20 communities across the state, as well as teams from the Lower 48 and Canada, gathered for three days in Juneau to build community and hone their skills.
Duc Ngo, a Juneau-based coach, cheered as one of the competitors raised the stick overhead in victory and hugged her challenger. “That’s my kid,” he said with pride. “They’re all my kids.” He has recruited and coached youth from across the state, including Chickaloon Village, Petersburg and Homer.
Ngo explained that coaching isn’t just about pushing athletes to greater heights in strength, endurance, focus and agility, but also in sportsmanship and resilience to challenges outside of the competitions. “It goes further than these Games,” he said “Personal life — going through struggles or celebration — all together as a community.”
In another corner, a group of boys from various teams practiced the Alaskan high kick, an event wherein competitors use one hand to grasp one foot and spring up on one arm to touch a suspended ball with their free foot. The result is a dynamic one-arm handstand punctuated by a well-aimed kick.
Matthew Chagluak, a member of the Anchorage team, hit the ball with an ease that belies the difficulty of the event. His coach, Alex Covey, recruited him to the team at a wrestling event, and Chagluak said the Games have improved his skills as an all-around athlete as well as his quality of life.
“It makes me feel a lot better. NYO brought me to a place where I’m a lot more happy with what I’m doing. Just being surrounded by positive energy all the time,” he said.
Juneau coach Kyle Worl is largely credited with a renaissance of the Games in Alaska’s capital city over the last seven years — for decades prior to his effort, Juneau did not send a team to the Native Youth Olympics. Now, the city is hosting large-scale events.
Reggie Joule, a long time participant in the Arctic Winter Games starting in the 1970s and a mentor to many coaches and competitors was present at the Games. Joule served as a state representative for House District 40 from 1997-2012. He said it was rewarding to see the effort previous generations brought to traditional games culminate in increased interest and huge events like the one in Juneau this year.
“We didn’t talk about being Native back in the day, and to see the pride that kids carry and the willingness, the hunger to learn more — not only about the Games, but about the dances, the language — there’s definitely a resurgence from the youth today,” Joule said.
At an awards ceremony on Saturday, leaders emphasized a message of civic engagement and community responsibility.
Sealaska Heritage Institute was one of the Games’ sponsors. SHI President Rosita Worl said the competitors gave her hope for a bright future, despite challenges. “I know that we’ve left you with a lot of issues,” she said. “But I know that you are going to figure out a way out to undo what our generation has done.”
She pointed out Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, and Joule in the crowd and praised them for working to secure education funding as legislators go through the budget process. “We must get after that Legislature to fund education. You are deserving of the best education,” Worl said to cheers from the crowd.
Two speakers urged the youth to register and vote. Sandra Mitrovich from the National Congress of American Indians encouraged Native people to participate in elections and said that it is important that they are “electing folks that hear our communities, hear our stories, and make sure that we’re represented in all places.”
Michelle Sparck of Get Out the Native Vote — a nonpartisan effort that is an affiliate of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council — lamented low voter turnout among Alaska Native people in recent years. “If all of (Alaska’s) 600,000 registered voters were in a huge line, every fourth person should be an Alaska Native voter. But in 2022, only about 15% of us voted,” she said.
Then, it was back to the Games. Before she began distributing medals, Worl closed out the opening remarks with an affirmation of the hundreds of young people before her.
“I’m proud of you,” she said. “You have made your parents, you have made your family, you have made your community proud of you.”
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