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A Celebration of Alaska Native Traditions: 2021 WEIO Games Sees Strong Competitors From Bering Strait Region

A look back at 2021’s World Eskimo Indian Olympic Games shows an event full of warmth, color, solidarity and culture. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes and artists were able to gather and participate in person.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, officials moved the event to the Big Dipper, a smaller Fairbanks venue than in previous years. Some events required competitors to show proof of vaccination. When all these safety precautions were in place, the four-day event in Fairbanks kicked off with an opening ceremony. One by one, dance groups and other artists paraded in while their names and regions were announced over the loudspeaker.

The games then proceeded to a variety of events. There were Native Dance Contests, regalia contests, and the Miss WEIO pageant where Miss Kalkisuna Autumn Madison was crowned Miss WEIO.

And of course, there were the athletic competitions.

Marjorie Tahbone from Nome, won the Blanket Toss. The key to impressing the judges is height, landing, and control in the air, Tahbone said. Besides winning the Blanket Toss, Tahbone also won the Indian Stick Pull. She took second in the Fish Cutting and Seal Skinning competitions and won the Regalia Competition’s fur division. Events such as the Fish Cutting competition really require competitors to have an active subsistence life, Tahbone said.

Everybody has their own different styles based on where they’re from, their traditional styles. They come and usually they have been preparing their regalia for months, sometimes years, before they enter it,” Tahbone said.

Paris Hebel of Nome proved to be another standout competitor from the Bering Strait region. Despite being only a second year WEIO competitor, Hebel won the Drop the Bomb competition and took second in both the Bench Reach and the Race of the Torch.

“WEIO is one of the most fun events of the year because we get to play games that we miss out on in NYO, such as Drop the Bomb. Another part of WEIO that I love is the people. Everyone competing is so kind, funny, and incredible… It’s such a great feeling to participate in my culture alongside some really wonderful people,” Hebel said.

The solidarity of the WEIO community was palpable throughout the Games. With the absence of the typical crowds of spectators due to Covid restrictions, onlookers cheered on every competitor. They encouraged the athletes through both successes and missteps. Volunteers were always ready to hold the blanket for the Blanket Toss or to film competitions. As a board member, Tahbone had something to say about the origin of this solidarity.

We really strive to keep the spirit of WEIO as it was, a long time ago. Everybody comes together. We’re happy to celebrate together in having our lifestyle celebrated in the events, also supporting artists through the vendors that sell their arts and crafts there and acknowledging all the elders. Just kind of seeing and showcasing the beauty of our cultures together,” Tahbone said.

The games were also a very family-friendly affair. Young children made their presence known throughout all the events, and some mothers had to adjust their dance moves to accommodate the babies they were holding. The babies and toddlers of WEIO had their own special moment during the Infant Regalia contest, where regalia makers presented native garments modeled by babies.

Along with Tahbone and Hebel, other athletes from the Bering Strait region distinguished themselves in the competitions. Awaluk Nichols placed second in the Race of the Torch, the Greased Pole Walk and the Bench Reach and took third in the Scissor Broad Jump. Katlyn Smith, a first year competitor from Nome, tied for third in the race of the torch. Nicole Johnson from Nome, won the Greased Pole Walk. Marilyn Irelan, also from Nome, placed third in the Fish Cutting competition.

Next Year’s WEIO Games are scheduled for July 20-23, 2022.

Image at top: Paris Hebel’s competes in the Drop the Bomb competition. Photo Courtesy of Logan Hebel.

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