Elders honored as Native Youth Olympics
By DEBRA McKINNEY
Condensed by Native Village
Anchorage, Alaska: One by one, teams in this year's Native Youth Olympics paraded into the Dena'ina Center. 500 middle and high school students from 57 Alaskan communities were preparing for three days of competitions. Winning, however, is not as important as the spirit of the games themselves. As Clare Swan put it in the pre-game blessing, "The honor of one is the honor of all."
But before the games got under way, the crowd remembered the elders and others who had passed away since the last gathering. "Let's remember, and let's celebrate," said head judge Noel Strict. "Whether you win or lose during these games, you're all winners because you're passing on our traditions. And even if you're not Native, you're sharing in them.
Among those on Strict's mind during that moment was one of NYO's biggest fans -- her grandmother, who died of cancer in February. "My grandmother was a very, very strong woman," she said. "When I'm doing something like this that ties us together, you can't help but remember people who have passed. The games have provided strength for us. Survival, that's what this is all about."
The Native Youth Olympics test strength, agility, balance and endurance. The games have been played for many many generations. "These games are so old. I mean, they're hundreds of years old, and I'm getting to carry that on," Strict said. "There's pride in that. Just the cultural part of it strengthens me, and I know it strengthens my children. These games help pull us together."
Among the Native Youth Olympic games:
replicating the way their
ancestors snuck up on seals,
Although most of the competitors are Native, the NYO are open to kids of all races. "For the Native kids, it's a way to showcase the healthy lifestyle that our forefathers had," said Brian Walker, a NYO coordinator. "For the non-Natives, it's a way to learn another culture, another tradition."
Lucas Hickle, 14, is a non-native who got hooked last year when the games were taught through PE classes at school. "A couple of the village Natives came in and showed how to do all the events," he said. "I wasn't very good at them but I really liked them. In other games, everybody is your opponent. Here, everyone is family, even if you're on different teams."
Coach Melanie Cole has seen how these games bring out the best in students who don't like competitive sports. "It is a team event, but they're not looked down on or put down because they're not the biggest and or the strongest or the fastest," she said. "I've got kids on my team that live for this. And this has been in some ways a turning point for them to keep those grades up, to keep out of trouble so that they can keep coming back."