Sealaska Heritage Institute, along with other partnering organizations, is gearing up for the 2022 Traditional Games in Juneau this April 2-3.
Cheered on by this year’s theme of “Sh yáx̱ ayeeltseenáa!” Lingít for “Strengthen yourself!,” the games will be in person, though spots are limited by mitigation measures, said coach and organizer Kyle Worl.
“We’re being flexible to see how the COVID situation will be in April,” Worl said in a phone interview. “At this point we’re planning to have about 100 athletes. If things improve more we can allow more athletes.”
This will be the fifth year that SHI has helped sponsor the games, Worl said, partnering with other organizations like the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Last year, as part of the mitigation strategy, the game was broken up into three smaller games distributed around the region, though the Ketchikan event never happened because of a COVID-19 spike.
“At this point we’re planning to livestream the event. We’re being flexible,” Worl said. “If our levels really go down by April and we can have spectators, we’d love to invite them in.”
The games, hosted at Thunder Mountain High School, will be broken down into age groups, Worl said, including middle school, high school and adult divisions. Entrants are being grouped into teams largely based on geography, Worl said. Registration is still open for athletes 11 and older at the game’s website, Worl said. Athletes registering before March 1 will be entered in a drawing for a sealskin kicking ball, according to SHI.
“I’m very excited. It’ll be my last high school year competing,” said Ezra Elisoff, a TMHS senior, in a phone interview. “I’m excited to compete and see if I qualify for states this year. I hope states is in person this year ,but it might be virtual again.”
Elisoff said he’s been participating since his freshman year, when a friend lured him onto the team, and that he intends to keep competing as an adult. The games are both a good opportunity to see mates from up north and to compete, Elisoff said; his favorite event out of the ten is the two-foot high kick.
“You can feel it when it’s going to be a good kick. You have to be quick about your kicks so it’s a fluid motion,” Elisoff said. “Landing is the hard part.”
Worl said that each year (outside of the pandemic) that the games have happened since SHI began hosting them five years ago, the number of participants has increased. Worl said he hopes that they’ll be able to go back to removing the mitigation-imposed limit on participants soon.
“I started partnering with SHI to host the first one in 2018. If I remember correctly, it was about 60 registered athletes in 2018. In 2019 we had 110 registered athletes. In 2020 we had nearly 150. In 2021 it was really unfortunate we had to limit the number of participants,” Worl said. If it wasn’t for COVID the numbers would be going up every year. There’s a lot more recognition for the games around the state, and in Canada.”
Worl said he hopes that like lacrosse, originally a sport developed by the Iroquois people, the Traditional Games can continue to expand and reach new audiences.
“I’d like to see it grow beyond Alaska, beyond the traditional places where it’s been played,” Worl said.
More information about the games and the individual events can be found online at https://traditionalgames.sealaskaheritage.org/.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.