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Games’ Indigenous Events Offer Both Slow-paced Fun, Fast-paced Excitement

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Arctic Winter Games, Day 3: The pace picked up Tuesday, along with the level of competition, as the field of athletes still in the running for medals narrows. Events are in full swing again today, offering spectators slow-paced fun and fast-paced excitement.

The Arctic Winter Games are renowned for combining indigenous and U.S. or Western-style competitive events. And Smith Middle School provided a great example of that combination on Tuesday.

Inside, in the gym, Yukon and Nunavut junior girls volleyball teams were going at it. As you might image with all the whooping and cheering, it was a hard-played contest between two pretty-well matched teams. Both gave it their best, but Nunavut won it in two sets.

The feel of the event going on outside was much different.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
... Outside, athletes competed in the snow snake event, one of the Dene games. Here, Matt Brown of Team Yukon eyes the stick as it travels down the course.

We got by there just in time to catch the junior boys and open male snow snake event. That’s one of several included in the Dene Games – Dene being a term that indigenous North American people use to refer to identify their ethnicity.

Here’s Matthew Brown, a snow snake aficionado from Haines Junction, Yukon, listing the other Dene games:

“There’s pull-push, the stick-pull, the snow snake, and finger-pull and hand games,” Brown said.

The snow snake requires contestants to sort of slide a pole maybe 4-feet-long using a kind of underhand pitch to send it on snowy course that’s banked on both sides. The pole often sort of waggles around in the course as it’s sliding along, resembling the motion of a sidewinder snake. The winner is the contestant who sends the pole sliding the longest distance down the course.

Brown says it’s tricky to keep the pole between the two banks, especially if you try to hurl it with a lot of force.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Dominik Qaqasik, of Arctic Bay, Nunavut, and his stick.

“It’s a bit harder than just throwing it on the ground,” he said. “It’s more like you have to get really low in order for it to go really straight, and the way you want it to.

He says the key is to first find the balance point.

“See, you put your fingers out, and you have to like balance it on your fingers to see where the middle is,” Brown said. “And where it’s balanced is the best spot. And you want to get real low and you throw it as far as you can.”

Brown is 16, and says he’s been competing in the event for a few years now – he’s 16 now. He says he got a bronze ulu in the event during the 2012 games in Whitehorse. He’s hoping to improve on that record this year.

This is the first go-round for another contestant who was showing off his pole to an inquiring reporter. He introduced himself:  “My name’s Dominik Qaqasik, and I’m 17 years old.”

Qaqasik hails from Arctic Bay, a village in far-north Nunavut, near the northern tip of Baffin Island. He says he’s having a great time to compete here in Fairbanks: “It’s awesome!”

The snow snake event is fascinating to watch. And the atmosphere is friendly. There’s a lot of interaction between the young people from all the teams. The contestants often congratulate or kid each other, depending on whether the throw was good or bad.

Likewise, with the the head-pull event. That’s one of the Arctic Sports events, and the competition is being held at Lathrop High School.

The event features two contestants facing each other in a sort of push-up position, maybe four feet apart, with heads raised and a big, thick, three-inch wide rubber band stretched between them, around the back of their heads.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Matt Jacobson of Yukon, left, and Sam Hasenclever of Alberta North compete for third place in heal-pull event Tuesday at Lathrop High School. Jacobson won the tough match, and the bronze ulu.

When the signal is given, both contestants immediately try to pull the other backward over a line. The one who succeeds, wins. More often, the rubber band will slip off one of the contestant’s heads, giving the win to the other.

The contests are intense – and short-lived. Most were over in a few seconds.

But not the contest for third and fourth place in the open men’s division, between Matt Jacobson of Yukon and Sam Hasenclever of Alberta North. That one went on for more than 20 seconds.

It was a standoff for several seconds, with neither side getting the advantage. The cheers grew louder as the contest went on until finally … Jacobson prevailed.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that Matt Jacobson won the head-pull contest, and the bronze ulu for the event.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.