When Kyle Worl first moved to Juneau in 2017, he said it was to be a part of the cultural community. Since then, he’s helped that community grow, by growing the presence of the Traditional Games, (also known as Native Youth Olympics) throughout Southeast Alaska.
Since that time, Worl, who grew up in Fairbanks and Anchorage, has been the coach for Juneau’s team and is expecting 2023 to be the Traditional Games’ biggest year yet as this will be the first event entirely open since COVID-19.
“We’re excited to see what new teams participate this year,” Worl said. “Coming out of COVID we did kind of see a slump in participation and a lot of extra challenges to hosting this event, but I think we’re at a stage where we’re ready to grow and we’re able to really see this event take off in a big way.”
The 2023 Traditional Games will be held in Juneau on Saturday and Sunday, April 1-2. at Thunder Mountain High School. Worl said that while no official times have yet been worked out , typically the games run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for anyone to attend and the registration form for athletes ages 11 and older is now available online. Athletes who register by March 1 are eligible to win a sealskin kicking ball in a drawing.
The Traditional Games and Juneau’s NYO team are a community collaboration made possible by Sealaska Heritage, Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sealaska, University of Alaska Southeast, Select Physical Therapy, Juneau School District and Trickster Co.
The games include teams competing in 10 events over the two days and will be livestreamed on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s YouTube and at traditionalgames.sealaskaheritage.org. The Traditional Games include various events that test skills of strength, agility, balance, endurance and focus. Worl said the origins of the games go back hundreds, if not thousands of years as a way of training hunters for the necessary skills to survive.
“The original creators of most of the games were from the Iñupiat people of Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland,” Worl said. “The spirit of the games are to work toward common goals and learn from skills and values that allowed Alaska Native people to survive and thrive in some of the harshest conditions.”
Worl said he was always heavily involved in the Traditional Games while living in Anchorage, and when he moved to Juneau he said the one thing he especially missed was still having that connection with the games.. Being that Juneau is the capital city, Worl said he found it surprising that there wasn’t more of a presence since the Traditional Games represent over 100 different communities from across Alaska.
“The NYO games is what really kept me healthy and kept me involved in the community through high school and college, so, when I moved to Juneau I realized there wasn’t a big program for even teams at the high school level, they did have some stuff going on at the elementary level, but I found when I moved here that the last time Juneau had a team to travel to state NYO was somewhere around 1991.”
Worl said the program started out small with only running games through summer camps, but when the idea proved to be so well received, that’s when Sealaska Heritage started asking what it would take to pilot the program in Juneau high schools. After recruiting Worl as a coach based on his experience from coaching in Anchorage, Juneau NYO started holding practices at both high schools until finally in 2018 they brought their first Juneau team to the State Traditional Games competition in Anchorage, marking the first time Juneau was represented in the state competition in roughly 27 years. Worl said the last team to go to state was coached by his uncle Ricardo.
Since 2018, Worl said the program has continued to take a team back to the state competition and has only continued to grow and expand throughout Juneau and all of Southeast Alaska. Worl said it’s grown so much, in fact, it’s allowed the program to split up into more divisions than are often offered through other programs within the state.
“One of the unique things about our event that isn’t done at a lot of the other events is that we have an adult category,” Worl said. “Even if a high schooler graduates but they’re really into the sport throughout all four years of high school, there’s no reason for them to stop, they can compete as an adult in that division.”
Someone who couldn’t be more pleased with the adult division is 19-year-old Ezra Elisoff of Juneau. Elisoff, who is Tinglit, participated in the games for all four of his years at Thunder Mountain High School and said he now looks forward to competing this year for the first time within the adult division.
“It’s been quite the journey. It started off just as a supplementary sport to wrestling because that’s what I was originally,” Elisoff said. “Honestly, I didn’t see it going as far as it has, but it’s really kind of shaped a lot of who I am today and made me more respectful and a better sport, that’s for sure. It also actually started paving the way to looking into my own culture.”
Elisoff said that through his time participating in the NYO, he’s been able to connect more to his roots and even recently learned what clan his family belongs to and where his people come from, which he includes Athabaskans and Eyak descendants. Elisoff said in addition to appreciating the connection to Alaska Native heritage, he also values lessons in camaraderie.
“I stay with the sport mainly because of the feeling of community that you get and I love seeing how other people succeed because how I was told the way you look at Indigenous games is to actually think of the other athletes as your fellow hunters, they’re not your rival opponents, but rather your fellow hunters. Traditionally, when you went out hunting you would actually help each other because you wouldn’t want each other’s families to starve.”
Elisoff said he plans to continue competing beyond this year since there’s currently no maximum age limit to participate.
“It’s really funny because there’s no age limit in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, it’s like 12 years old is the minimum age, so I always joke that I’ll be competing when I’m 90,” Elisoff said.
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at firstname.lastname@example.org.