Volley after volley of arrows filled Thunder Mountain High School’s auxiliary gym with a faint whistling whoosh punctuated by the thunk-thunk-thunk of unsynchronized projectiles finding their respective targets.
This weekend marked the first time those distinctive noises were part of the soundscape of the Traditional Games, an annual program featuring competitive events based on the hunting and survival skills of Indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Arctic that takes place in Juneau.
“It’s been really popular,” said Traditional Games coach Kyle Kaayák’w Worl of the first-year event.
Worl said archery was included in this year’s games both because it’s a traditional hunting method and because it employs a skill set that distinguishes it from the games’ other events. He said athletes less inclined to enjoy the Traditional Games’ jumping-based events might find archery appealing.
Successfully integrating archery into the Traditional Games was no sure thing, Worl said.
“We didn’t really know if we could pull it off,” Worl said, and he largely credited Sheila Madahbee for making it happen.
Madahbee, an archery instructor for Yukon Aboriginal Sport Circle, not only served as head archery official, she also brought the barebows, arrows and arrow-holding tubes used by athletes.
The bows were chosen for their simplicity, making them more similar to traditional bows, said Madahbee, who was assisted in officiating by certified locals. The process of getting over a dozen bows from Canada to Alaska’s capital city was relatively straightforward. The bows were simply stored on a vehicle and brought to town from Whitehorse, Yukon, on board the ferry.
Past competition established the connection that led to the equipment coming to town.
Madahbee said she and Worl met when Worl brought a team to the Arctic Sports Inter-School Championship held in Whitehorse.
On a free day, Worl’s team was invited to try archery with the Aboriginal Sports Circle, a nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to the advancement of Aboriginal participation in sport and recreation and to the promotion of Aboriginal Sports.”
It was decided that archery would make sense as an addition to the Traditional Games and four months later it made its debut.
“Everybody seems to be enjoying it right now,” Madahbee said.
Lee Richards, a Thunder Mountain High School sophomore, was among those to try their hand at archery.
While one-hand reach — an event that requires athletes to balance their weight on their palm or knuckles while reaching with their free hand for a suspended ball — is Richards’ favorite event, he said archery was “pretty fun.”
Richards, who is Yup’ik, Athabascan and Aleut, said he particularly enjoyed that archers let their arrows fly as a group.
“Not everyone’s watching you at once,” Richards said.
More teams, more athletes more awards
While archery was this year’s lone new event, it was far from the only distinguishing characteristic of the sixth annual Traditional Games.
An overall college team award is debuting this year, which Worl said is exciting since collegiate teams aren’t always included in similar games.
Additionally, this year set a new high in the number of college teams competing, Worl said, with Alaska Pacific University, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast all sending teams.
Worl said it’s important that athletes continue their sport into adulthood, so he’s glad that the Traditional Games are able to feature college-age and older competitors.
In addition to setting a new high in college teams, this year’s games set a new record for overall participation, Worl said, with over 200 athletes set to compete.
Members from dozens of teams contributed to that total with local teams including Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, Thunder Mountain High School, Yakoosgé Daakahídi High School, Dzantik’i Héeni Middle School and Floyd Dryden Middle School.
Visiting teams included, Hoonah, Sitka, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Metlakatla, Southeast Island School District, Anchorage, Service High School, Fairbanks, Unalakleet, the Homer Halibuts, Chickaloon, Qutekcak Native Tribe of Seward, Kenai, PNW All Nations, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Sante Fe Indian School, Whitehorse and from Canada’s Northwest Territories, Yellowknife.
“It just keeps going up every year,” Worl said of participation both in-state and internationally. “It’s a growing event.”
Results from the 2023 Traditional Games are available online at https://traditionalgames.sealaskaheritage.org/.