The first World Eskimo Olympics was held in Fairbanks in 1961 drawing contestants and dance teams from Barrow, Unalakleet, Tanana, Fort Yukon, Noorvik and Nome. The event was a big success and has been held annually ever since.
For time immemorial, Native peoples of the circumpolar areas of the world have gathered in small villages to participate in games of strength, endurance, balance, and agility. Along with these athletic games, dancing, story telling, and other audience participation games took place. This provided an opportunity for friendly competition, entertainment and laughter. The hosts provided food and lodging, and visitors brought news from surrounding villages and expanded opportunities for challenge building and renewing old and new friendships. This is the background of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the atmosphere, which we seek to replicate.
In 1961, the City of Fairbanks, through the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, sponsored the World Eskimo Olympics as a segment of the emerging Golden Days Celebration. The chamber's involvement continued through the 1969 games. The late A. E. "Bud" Hagberg, and now retired Frank Whaley, Wein Airways employees, who are credited as the organizers of the World Eskimo Olympics, co-chaired the first several events, while Bill English and late Tom Richards, Sr., pilots of the airlines, served as emcees. The rapidly developing State of Alaska, along with the movement of the more powerful Western civilization into rural Alaska led to a fear the games might be forgotten and not passed on and shared with others.
Four Eskimo dance groups, two Indian dance groups, and competitions in the high-kick, blanket toss, seal skinning, added with the Miss Eskimo Olympics Queen Contest were held during that first year. Exhibitions on the teeter board and Eskimo "piggy back" baby buggy show rounded out the short program. From this beginning, a diverse and complex format encompassing three days was born.
In 1970, Tundra Times, the only statewide Native newspaper in Alaska, by mutual agreement with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, took over sponsorship of the growing event. It was viewed by the Tundra Times Board of Directors as a potential fund raiser to assist the newspaper in its mission, defined by the late Howard Rock, founder and editor, to aid the Alaska Native movement toward better solutions to the problems they confronted for decades.
In 1973, the Board of Directors of Tundra Times passed a resolution changing the name of the World Eskimo Olympics to World Eskimo-Indian Olympics to more accurately reflect the ethnicity of the participants. The logo for the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is six interwoven rings representing the six major tribes in Alaska - Aleut, Athabascan, Inupiaq, Yup'ik, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimpsian.
Each year record-breaking crowds, record-breaking performances by the athletes, an increasing number of competitors, and larger numbers of villages sending dance groups and athletes to the Games proved to be a challenge to the sponsoring organization. In 1976, an independent, non-profit corporation was formed for the sole purpose of a planning, preparing, and staging the annual event. World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Inc. is a 501-(c)(3) organization run by a dedicated group of supporters and volunteers.
Gate proceeds, soft good sales, and donations from friends and corporate partners provide revenue and services to cover expenses, and, hopefully, provide fuel to prepare and plan for the next year's celebration.
Throughout its 45-year history, the organizers of WEIO has seen photojournalistic crews from all over the globe. Tabloids such as Cosmopolitan, People, and USA Today, have offered articles on the Olympics as best they could. Some of the participants have been on national-wide television shows such as: Good Morning America, the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, CNN, ESPN and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Many international television programs from Germany, London, Japan, Norway, and other countries have done specials starring the people, athletes, and events of the WEIO. Strange as these games may be to some, the organizers strive to present these games as an important arterial to the survival of a culture, rich with history, stories, and spirituality.
In the early 1970's, women's divisions were established. The most recent games added to the women's division was the knuckle hop in 1983. In 1998, the first women placed in the top three in the ear weight competition.
Records are broken in almost every year. This is evidenced by WEIO's right to parenthood to such games as the Native Youth Olympics, and Arctic Winter Sports. It is because of the WEIO, many countries in the circumpolar areas of the World are having annual festivals and carnivals featuring the games and dances. It is believed that by working together, we can look to the future with interest and pride at the results achieved by promoting these games in light with which they are offered.
Four awards are given each year as a tribute of contributions to the WEIO. They are: the A. E. "Bud" Hagberg Memorial Sportsmanship Athletic Award - chosen by the athletes among themselves - this award is presented to the outstanding sportsperson exemplifying the spirit of good sportsmanship; the Howard Rock Memorial Outstanding Athlete Award is another award to the best athlete chosen amongst the athletes themselves; and, the Frank Whaley Award Presentation for Outstanding Contributions is presented to the one individual or corporation who has demonstrated exemplary contributions of time, money and effort on an annual basis.
Survival for the Native people of Alaska has been the name of the games for as long as our elders can recollect. When listening to them tell of their early life, it sometimes seems inconceivable they managed at all. These stories constantly reiterate the need to be disciplined physically as well as mentally, to share, cooperate, and to hold a reverence for the source which makes it possible to survive in an environment which is severe in every sense of the word. These people lived off what nature provided. They hunted, fished, and gathered plants for food, clothing, and medicinal purposes. In all of these instances they had to be strong and agile, and able to endure past normal limits of strength and pain. In winter or summer, one had to prepare to be tested at any moment, and to fail could easily be the difference between life and death.
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