Alaska: The pain games

By Roger Hall

Two men compete in the ear-pulling competition at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Andrew Otto
Two men compete in the ear-pulling competition at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Andrew Otto

The ear-pull championship is not pretty to watch. An elastic band made of sinew is hooked over the right ears of two opponents, who sit cross-legged in front of each other.

At a signal, each pulls until the band slides off one ear, or one opponent concedes, because of the pain, which is intense.

In fact, pain is the point of this event in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics held annually at Fairbanks, Alaska, since 1961.

The Olympics were established by a couple of bush pilots who had seen native games and dances in rural areas and were worried that that these would be lost under the influence of Western culture.

For some competitors, it is the only tie to their heritage and a way to celebrate their culture.

Teaching youngsters to endure pain was a necessary part of an upbringing designed to help them survive the harsh Arctic elements.

A similar event involving both pain and ears involved carrying 7kg of lead from an ear lobe as far as possible before pain forced the competitor to give up.

In the early rounds of the ear pull, with less-experienced competitors, the band slipped off so quickly that neither side got hurt. But after most contests competitors clasped their hands to their ears and ran to the Red Cross stand to get ice packs which they applied for a long time afterwards.

Later rounds took longer as the experienced competitors won through. It's best of three. Right ears first, then left and in a third round each person can choose their preferred ear (probably the one that hurts the least).

For the record, Keith Bacon won the men's gold medal, and Asta Keller the ladies'.

The ear-pull was held in the afternoon in a large sports centre, with a prominent basketball scoreboard. Many stalls sold Alaskan native arts and crafts: jewellery, carved bone and ivory figures, masks, bark baskets, bead purses and so on.

The final event later that night was to be a seal-skinning competition - subject to the availability of seals. The announcer said it would take place if the seals were thawed in time. We didn't stay long enough to find out, but it crossed my mind as to why (since games dates are known a year in advance) the seals couldn't have been taken out of the freezer in plenty of time.

Ear-pulling had been scheduled for 2pm, but it was closer to 3pm by the time the competitors ambled in, and judges and organisers were ready to go.

We got there at 5.45pm in time for the 6pm opening ceremony. We queued outside, and at 5.55pm a group of competitors came out carrying a pole for the greasy pole competition. The event had been scheduled for 2pm, so this was discouraging, and clearly patience (and perhaps a good book) is a requirement for spectators. The pole competition was to take place on the grass just outside the hall so we thought we might as well watch it.

The pole was laid on the ground, covered in grease, and people slid barefoot sideways along it. It wasn't the most exciting of events. Few managed more than a metre before slipping off, but the winner, a teenage girl who hadn't realised she'd been entered for the event, managed 4m.

Then it was time to go into the hall, and the parade got under way at 6.30pm.

Tribes of Eskimo-Indians filed past, each tribe in its own colour: bright yellow, white, purple, blue. They marched to the beat of drums made of skins stretched on hoops, with a handle for easy carrying. The 50 or so drums beat out a tremendous rhythm as the tribes marched around.

The tribe from Barrow (Inupiaq) were the first to present dances, the only musical accompaniment being their own drums that beat out an insistent rhythm. At first these dances were languid, gentle, the opposite of Irish dancing in that the feet remained still, and the upper body moved so simply that even Rodney Hide could have coped.

Then the men danced, with an increasing intensity. Several of their dances were linked to animals they hunted. They used walrus masks and animals' paws were placed on hands.

Next were a couple of demonstration games: the scissor jump, a variation of the triple jump, aimed at developing skills of jumping from ice floe to ice floe; and the arm pull - two people sitting opposite each other on the floor, legs intertwined, arms linked, heaving until one is pulled over. No origins for this were offered.

Then the most athletic event of the night, the one foot high kick. A softball-sized ball was suspended above the ground (2.5m for the men, 1.9m for the women). The idea was to leap up and kick it. A little risky - being so high off the ground, one foot high up means the upper body is virtually horizontal. And, unlike the namby-pamby conventional high-jump, there was no soft landing on piles of mattresses. The competitors had to land on one foot on a hard surface.

The origins of the kick were based on an Arctic tradition when hunters would jump and kick both feet in the air after taking a whale as a signal to villagers in the distance to help.

One of the most spectacular events of the games was the blanket toss. The blanket was made of many hides sewn together, with rope handles around the perimeter. A toss required 30 volunteers with strong backs. But technique was also important, so the volunteers had to gather round for half-an-hour's on-the-job training before all was ready.

One of the volunteers soon realised her back was not strong enough and wisely withdrew.

Then the first young man clambered on to the blanket which became a trampoline. Bounce, bounce, bounce - and then a signal and a huge thrust shot the man high into the air. He kicked and gyrated, to see how many ways he could twist his body in a couple of seconds.

This event originated from Eskimo efforts to find a way to get high in the air to view their vast, flat, frozen surrounds, where there were neither trees nor hills. The four jumpers each had three turns, and no winner was announced, so presumably it was more for fun than competition.

In fact one of the nice parts of the games was their minimal competitive nature - competitors all congratulated each other and seemed genuinely pleased by others' success.

About 10pm there was some good news: the seals had thawed. Ten of them were unwrapped from black bin liners and laid out.

Nine competitors were ready, leaving the 10th seal for the MC to demonstrate his skinning skills were out of practice.

The record time for the event was 57 seconds and it was clear early on that was safe as the competitors set to.

It was tough work. The initial incision was made from head, along the belly to the tail. The tail was hacked off, the skin ripped wide open, and then the skin from the rest of the body hacked off. It was a bit like competitive sheep shearing except these beasts didn't resist.

One young man got away to a good start and everyone was expecting him to win when a roar announced that an older man had finished. His time: 3 minutes 12 seconds. He rose, panting from his efforts.

A moment or two later, the young man finished. He may have been slower, but his skin had come off much more cleanly; it lay sadly beside the body, as neat as a hearth rug. One young woman remained, persistently hacking away at the corpse beside her; both of them bloody and stinking.

It was now nearly 11pm. Inside it was very hot but outside it was a cooler 25C, or so. And bright daylight. At this time of year in Alaska it never gets dark.

Coming up on the programme was a tug of war between White Man and Native Woman. In these PC days it seemed there was only going to be one outcome. Time to go.


On the move: Next year the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics will be held in Anchorage (which is like the wearable arts show transferring to Wellington).

Charges: Attendance at the 2006 games was free in the afternoon and $12 in the evening or $8 for students and seniors.

- NZ Herald

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