Of practice and pastimes

Native heritage, athletics displayed at Native Youth Olympics

Daniel German has been competing in a wide range of events in Native Youth Olympics for about four years, but there is one event in particular for which he can’t hardly wait.


The seal hop — that’s his game.

“I cannot do any basketball, wrestling, track or anything but NYO,” said the 17-year-old from New Stuyahok with a laugh. “It is all I can do. It is the only sport I have ever been good at.”

German stood in the gymnasium of Soldotna Middle School on Friday evening mentally preparing for the event. He was one of about 75 participants in the ninth annual Native Youth Olympics, which is part of the Peninsula Winter Games. Both Native and non-Native boys and girls participated in the event featuring two classes — junior and senior. The event is one of several hosted around the state that leads up to the Statewide Native Games in Anchorage, hosted by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Native games feature a wide variety of events and entertainment from the highly athletic — Alaska high kick, one- and two-foot high kicks — to the more relaxed and fun — toe kick, blanket toss and the stick pull.

And then there is the seal hop, which is decidedly more traditional. The event is born from skills Alaska Native people needed to survive. In this case, sneaking up on seals on the hard ice.

“Traditionally when they would go out hunting they would put on their sealskin parka, lie down on the ground and grab their spears in their hands … and they would have to hop on the ice like that,” said organizer Amber Glenzel. “Seals are real skittish so they would have to be real close to the ground to get real close to them.”

So what does it take to hop around like a seal? You might be surprised, German contends.

“You have to have good upper body strength, you have to know how to breathe correctly and you have to have a goal in mind of where you want to go and how far you want to get,” he said. “If you are hunting something, you are going to have to do a lot of crawling on the ground.”

German said he thinks he is particularly apt to compete in the sport because of his heritage.

“All these events come from different tribes — the Aleuts, or the Yupiks,” he said. “All of them invented one of them and I am really good at seal hop because I am half Aleut. I am the only one in my village that can do that because it was all Yupik.”

Many of the other events have to do with the ability to hop from ice floe to ice floe — scissor broad jump, triple jump and kneel jump.

“Ever since I first started I felt like I could go farther and farther and as the years progressed, I picked up on a lot,” said Austin Sumdum, speaking about his best event, the kneel jump.

Each time Sumdum, 18, of Anchorage, approaches the line for the event, he wets his ankles slightly before tucking them under his body. He sits focused on the space in front of him, bouncing on his heels and with a few swings of his arms he takes to the air like a coil unwinding.

In a flash, he extends his body to a nearly straight line before snapping his feet back under and sticking the landing with a confident thud.

“My goal has always been to try to, if I am not the best, try and keep up with the best,” Sumdum said.

As the judges measure his distance, which is nearly as long as his body is tall, he looks back and smiles at his friend Andrew Demientieff, who admits he is not quite as good of a kneel jumper.

“I need to focus on jumping forward, not up, and reaching with my heels,” he said.

Demientieff said many Native Youth Olympics athletes benefit from strong core muscles. 

“You use a lot of muscles you never knew existed,” he said with a laugh.

Developing a few calluses in weird spots is part of it, too.

“When I start to practice, my feet will start to bleed,” he said. “You just have to push through. Keep doing it over and over. Me and (Sumdum) demonstrate these events over the summer for our tribe, five times a day, 45 minutes each demo to tourists. We get gnarly calluses on our feet in the summer.”

Demientieff and Sumdum were two of the more accomplished kickers and made it to the last round of the two-foot high kick, where athletes try and kick a ball tethered from an increasingly higher distance and land back on both feet.

Brian Walker II kept pace with the two in the two-foot event and even received counsel from the pair on his technique before attempting the last kick he would make before being eliminated.

Walker, 17, who represented Chickaloon, said momentum, weight transfer and approach are all critical components of a good kicker.

“You have got to work out your abs, hips, calves and all your leg and feet muscles and you have to get really, really in touch with your body so that your body knows what to do,” he said.

However, NYO isn’t all about athletic competition.

Josie and Ali Jones, both 15-year-old students at Kenai Central High School, participated in the opening ceremonies by dancing and singing with the Jabila’ina Dancers.

“I love the joy and the fun of all of it,” Josie said. “It has been here since the Kenai Peninsula has been here.”

The two were dressed in traditional Dena’ina regalia, but wore Yupik headdresses to represent their heritage, and said they enjoyed helping with NYO even though they weren’t participating as athletes.

In particular they enjoyed singing “The Raven Song” to the crowd.

“Long story short he brought the first song so the Dena’ina could learn more songs,” Josie said.

“Yeah because they didn’t know what music was — all they knew was beh-oh-doh-ho every day,” Ali said.

“Boring,” Josie said.

“Yeah it got boring and everyone was like, ‘This song makes my back ache,’” Ali said.

And just as many of the competitions represented traditional Native athletic endeavors, the songs the two love to sing also have a deeper meaning.

“Her idea is the cute raven, mine is the more serious,” Josie said. “It is more how the traditions came to be is how I think of it. Just the fact that there were stories like this back then and this was a thousand years ago this song first came out and people having these stories — it’s wonderful. It is so cool they have all these stories about this trickster guy.”

NYO’s cultural significance wasn’t lost on German, either, he said as he surveyed the rest of the competitors.

“It is our culture,” he said. “We’re trying to bring it back and not let it die out.”



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