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WEIO begins today in Fairbanks

WEIO set up
Volunteers and Governors set up the Big Dipper Arena ahead of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics opening Wednesday, July 13.

The World Eskimo Indian Olympics begin this morning at the Big Dipper Arena in Fairbanks. The event is looking more like it did before the first pandemic year when the 2020 games were cancelled. The Opening Ceremonies will start this evening at 6:00, including formal permission to host the games on Dena land.

Organizers says they have dozens more athletes attending this year than last. Gina Kalloch is on the Board of Governors of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. As she walks into the arena, she attributes the increase to wider use of COVID-19 vaccines and loosening of COVID restrictions in the state and locally.

“We're following the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s right now. Hope that'll stay for the next four days and not change,” she said.

Kalloch says they are still encouraging everyone who attends to be current with COVID-19 vaccinations, wear a mask and stay apart from each other.

“Especially if they’re in some of the games where they are right up close to their competitors,” she said.

They would like public attendees to be cautious as well.

“Last year we limited the floor participants only, but this year we actually have some extra vendor tables that will be down on the floor. So, the public will be able to come in and visit those tables and then elders will have a place to sit on the floor closer to the action if they choose to do so.”

It seems like there is a pent-up demand for vendor space. Kalloch says all the spots were filled and there are still vendors on a waiting list.

There are three sewn ugruk-skin blankets on the floor of the Big Dipper, and a fourth that is still stiff and curved up at the ends because it just came off an umiak. It will need to be softened before it can be used for the games’ signature event – the Eskimo blanket toss.

Volunteers set up at WEIO
Volunteers set up the Big Dipper a day before WEIO opening ceremonies.

Stepping around them on Tuesday are volunteers. Some help for a day or two, and some come year after year, like Mark Raifsnider, who, even though he has no Native heritage, came up from Mannheim, Pennsylvania.

“Because we enjoy coming up and sharing their culture with them. This is my seventh year up here. We've known a lot of people over the years and enjoy seeing 'em every year and the friendships, and we just love being up here.”

He was recruited with his wife Laura Raifsnider and daughter Payton Raifsnider, and now gets others to volunteer.

“We, my wife and me were sitting in church and in the bulletin, they, they needed volunteers for up here. So we decided we were gonna come up. That was 2015. So we've been up ever since.”

Kalloch leaves the arena to check on the tent set up on the field behind the building, where they hope to stage as many games as possible, outdoors.

“We have, with the help of the Rasmuson Foundation, been able to purchase our own portable gymnasium floor. So, we have a wooden basketball court-type floor that belongs to WEIO. That is what our athletes will be competing on this year,” she said.

Kalloch says it’s nice to feature the women competing in the WEIO Queen competition outdoors, so they can have a little breeze around the furs and moosehide of their traditional regalia, rather than the heat of a Fairbanks July in addition to hundreds of spectators inside the Big Dipper Arena.

This year the organization is helping an Anchorage 6-year-old leukemia patient who needs a bone marrow transplant. Tiberius Newbill, is Inupiaq, Black and white. WEIO was approached by the organization Be The Match, to help his family find a bone marrow donor.

Tiberius Newbill
Be The Match
Tiberius Newbill

“And so they'll be set up every day in the evening, taking DNA swabs. It's just a cheek swab to try and find him a match. So they might find someone in his immediate or, or extended family that we don't know about, or anyone can be swabbed and be tested because it doesn't matter if you're a relative or not,” Kalloch says.

“It doesn't matter if you're the same ethnicity or not. You could be the match.”

The daytime events go between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon and are free. WEIO charges for the indoor, evening events. The schedule and prices are on the website,