The first day of the 2019 Traditional Games was rife with displays of unity and togetherness, as teams from across the state of Alaska (and one from Arizona) gathered for Native Youth Olympics.
Around 60 Juneau athletes were joined by several dozen visiting athletes from such distant outposts of Utqiagvik, Bethel and even Arizona for the games, which are based on Alaska’s indigenous peoples’ hunting and survival skills. In the past, Juneau athletes would need to travel to Anchorage or Fairbanks for such competitions.
“What you’re doing here today is you’re building a support group — don’t ever feel alone,” Sealaska Heritage Institute Vice President Albert Kookesh said in the opening remarks on Saturday morning at Thunder Mountain High School. “These people are your support group. Stay with them. Stay with them.”
The Juneau team included students from both middle schools — Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’i Heeni — and all three high schools — Juneau-Douglas, Thunder Mountain and Yaakoosge Daakahidi. All the athletes filed into the gym with their respective teams to begin the opening ceremonies, and after listening to Kookesh and others, took in a performance from Tlingit rapper Arias Hoyle.
“I love the new introduction of the rapper and I also like the fact that we had elders dispense wisdom onto us,” NYO official Vincent Tomalonis said. “Hearing all the sponsors speak was great and very inspiring. Behind the scenes (Juneau coach) Kyle (Kaayák’w Worl) only had one hour of sleep. He deserves lots of credit for hosting all these things.”
Tommy Bayayok, Bethel Regional High School head coach, brought eight athletes down from the remote city located 400 miles west of Anchorage.
“When I first got the message from Kyle about Juneau hosting, I’ve never been to Southeast, I was very interested in the fundraising to bring the group,” Bayayok said.
“We did a couple of weekends of concession stands at ballgames back home.”
He brought a pretty good team of athletes, too, many of whom were eager to test their skills against new blood.
“I’ve never been here personally but I thought it would be a good experience to get to compete against new people and have newer competition,” Bethel’s JoBeth Stuart, 18, said.
Stuart was one of the top girl competitors at the NYO state games in Anchorage last year, like her teammate, Kelsie Madson.
“NYO is the sport that represents the culture,” Madson, 17, said. “I think it’s cool that more people are getting involved again.”
Before 2017, Native Youth Olympics were only practiced at the elementary school level in Juneau. Last year about 50 high school students started competing in the sport after Worl started practicing with JDHS, TMHS and YDHS students.
The inaugural Traditional Games were held at the University of Alaska Southeast but competition was only open to Juneau athletes.