World Eskimo Indian Olympics: The Games, The Games

Bernice Joseph at WEIO
The late Bernice Joseph was a winner of the Race of the Torch-Women in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011 in Fairbanks, Alaska. Athletes from around the state and spectators from around the world were there. I think it was the group member from Pamyua, Phillip Blanchett, who coined the words, “The Games, The Games”. The Pamyua group helped to create the documentary, Games of the North that year. What do the Native Games mean? You can learn more about it and watch it online.

Athletes have been training for months and years. In the Games of the North documentary, Big Bob Aiken says, “These aren’t just games, they are survival skills.” Each game has a story of survival linked to them, and have a lesson that can be translated today. Runners of all ages prepare for the Torch Run at WEIO.

Moses Wassillie, an Alaska Native artist, at the 2007 WEIO
Moses Wassillie, an Alaska Native artist, at the 2007 WEIO

Artists from around the state and nation have been sewing, beading and crafting for months in preparation to have a booth at WEIO. Many people save up “WEIO money” to buy arts, crafts, entry, and food.

This year, WEIO is gathering all of the former Miss WEIO’s for a reunion. The Fairbanks Daily Newsminer did a story on them, “Miss WEIO queens recall 50 years of pageant change, cultural growth.” Miss WEIO contestants have worked throughout the year practicing songs, dances, sewing regalia and public speaking.

Miss WEIO contestants have won regional pageant competitions, like Miss Top of the World or Miss Nuchalawoya. Some Miss WEIO winners have gone to the national stage of Miss Indian World and won. The 2010 Miss WEIO, Marjorie Tahbone, became the 2011 Miss Indian World. What an inspiring story for a young lady who started out as Miss Arctic Circle!

2006 Miss WEIO with 2007 contestants
The 2006 Miss WEIO and the 2007 contestants speak on KNBA

WEIO also has a competition of Native regalia. Years ago, I won a competition for ‘Best Traditional Dress’ for with my Athabascan regalia. My family and friends worked together for months to put it together. One of my cousins has been sewing traditional Athabascan regalia for her little girl in preparation to enter her into the Native baby regalia competition.

A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Dance groups from around Alaska also travel to WEIO to perform traditional Native dances and songs. You learn about different Native cultures and traditions from around Alaska. The songs are sung in Native languages.

WEIO is a great time to visit with friends and family. WEIO is sometimes the only place to see some friends you haven’t seen in years. Good luck to all of the athletes, artists, singers, dancers and more! It is a place where being Native is revered and celebrated. Happy WEIO and enjoy “The Games, The Games”!

A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

A Letter to My Athabascan Ancestors

Grandma Rose Ambrose enjoys a traditional Native meal in Huslia
Grandma Rose Ambrose enjoys a traditional Native meal in Huslia

I admire strong people. Thank you ancestors for surviving. I know life was hard. I’ll try to remember that as I go through life. You survived. I’m surviving. I don’t pretend to know your struggles, but I have an inkling. Struggles are different today.

While I entertain myself with TV, internet, and various electronic devices, you were entertained by storytelling. In the fall time, you shared most of the creation stories about animals like raven, frog, wolverine, beaver and more.

You must have had a strong mind. You had a lot of children and lost many to childhood diseases and accidents. Without a hospital nearby, there were often had tragic endings. I love and cherish my two children and cannot imagine your heartbreak.

You had traditional memorial potlatches in memory of those who have passed on. As a child, it was fun for me to connect with friends and eat delicious food. As an adult I know that it was an important part of the grieving process. I know you had ways of coping with loss and heartbreak, and I continue to practice some of those ways.

You had a strong connection to the land. I feel that connection because I am drawn to it. I hunt, fish and pick berries on that same land.

Koyukuk River sunset in interior Alaska
Koyukuk River sunset in interior Alaska

While you read the weather patterns, I read the traffic patterns. Despite our differences and changing times, I feel the connection to you. I realize how hard you had to work and how strong you must have been to survive.

How can I make my mind strong like yours? What did you do when times got tough. You prayed. Your strong beliefs and taking care of the land helped you survive. You didn’t take things for granted. You took care of sisters and brothers when your parents were providing for you. What do I have to complain about? What can I do to have a strong mind and heart. Pray. Believe. Survive.

I might not remember all of the stories or speak Athabascan fluently, but I’ll do my best to teach my children the same values you passed on to me. I am here because of you. Ana’ basee’ ancestors.


Teaching Native Ways

When you are raising your kids, you want to teach them your values. Sometimes, you are not sure if they are learning from you and picking up on your actions. Sometimes they pick up on are some of your worst habits. 🙂 My seven year old daughter had a school project where she had to draw pictures of her cultural background. My husband shared information about El Salvador culture, and I shared information about Athabascan and Alaska Native culture. The teacher put it together like a quilt.

Recently, she told me about a teacher at school telling the kids that eating meat will keep their skin healthy. She said, “I thought in my head, ‘I already eat meat. I’m Athabascan!‘” It made me happy to realize she is picking up on things that we are teaching her, especially about culture. I always thought it was difficult to explain Athabascan culture in a short amount of time. However, I think if you start answering a few basic questions, it can be done. What do they like to do, wear and eat?

Athabascan - Badzahoolan
Athabascan badzahoolan and words

Here is one square about the Athabascan culture:  “They make badzahoolan to wear. Here are the three words in Athabascan (Indian): adzoo = brrr; dah’ = give it to me; nah’ = here; and kah’ = getaway.” Badzahoolan are the equivalent of a kuspuk or summer parka that may Alaska Natives wear. Badzahoolans usually have hoods and are made of quilting fabric. The hoods help to protect you from pesky mosquitos and gnats.

[Note:  Although, I know a lot of words in Koyukon Athabascan, I do not speak or write it fluently. Please excuse my misspellings. Even among the Koyukon Athabascan language, there are slight differences between communities. Someday, it would be great to learn to speak and write fluently in Koyukon Athabascan.]

Athabascan - food
Athabascan foods

In another square, she drew pictures of what kinds of food Athabascans eat. We like to eat smoked salmon, moose soup, ducks and berries. We prepare salmon in many different ways. We smoke and dry it and store it for the winter. We bake it or fry it. Sometimes, we dry it half way, then bake it. Yummy! After we smoke it, we also jar it. We make salmon spread out of it.

We prepare and cook ducks much like you would prepare a chicken. We smoke and dry it sometimes. We bake it, fry it and make soup out of it.

There are many ways we prepare and eat moose meat. Interior Athabascans smoke the meat, cure it, and cut up and put in the freezer. We also make moose jerky, also known as dry meat. Depending on the cut of meat, it is cooked in different ways. We make ground meat out of some of it. We bake it, fry it, roast it, barbecue it and boil it (stew/soup). I feel like Forest Gump when I explain the different ways to prepare and eat moose meat. 🙂

Boats As Transportation
Boats As Transportation

In another square, my daughter drew a boat, “They like to drive boats on the river.” When we go home, we go to camp by boat about 12 miles below Huslia on the Koyukuk River. The main transportation source in many rural Alaskan communities are boats and ATVs (four-wheelers or snow machines).

Teaching Athabascan values and traditions can be done, despite the changing times. We didn’t have metal boats and motors a long time ago, but we did have skin kayaks and canoes. Athabascans used to walk by snowshoes in the winter. Athabascans used to travel by dog teams in the winter. Things will keep changing, but the basic values of Athabascans will stay the same. It is possible to pass on your traditional culture in small ways over a period of time.


All-Star Native Entertainers in Alaska

Unless you are going to the Native American Music Awards, it is unlikely that you will see a group of all-star Alaska Native and Native American performers under one roof. In March, the Tebughna Foundation held a three-day PowWow, the Ida’ina Gathering. They also hosted the Ida’ina Benefit Concert. Visit the Tebunghna Foundation website for a complete list of performers and more details.

There were many drums, singers and dancers of all ages at the PowWow. The dance groups empowered their youth by allowing them to present songs. Some youth even composed songs. The Jabila’ina Dancers of Kenai sang Athabascan words to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance song. Making it fun and up-to-date is one way of ensuring Alaska Native singing and dancing will be around for a long time.

The Ida’ina Benefit Concert featured Pamyua, Medicine Dream, Litefoot, Marc Brown and the Blues Crew, AKU-MATU (Allison Warden), River Flowz and Aaron Letendre. Allison Warden was the emcee and rapped between performances. It was a wide array of music, including tribal funk, rap, blues, drumming, singing and contemporary rock. I’ve seen most of them perform over the years, mostly as the sole entertainment. However, seeing them in one place was an extraordinary experience!

2011 Iditarod Champ, John Baker, was a special guest at the concert. Everyone cheered when he spoke briefly at the concert. Being at the Gathering and Concert was a wonderful way to connect to Alaska Native and Native American culture. I enjoyed visiting old friends and making new ones!

About the Tebughna Foundation (from their website):
The Tebughna Foundation was founded in September 2007 to Preserve, Enhance, Educate, & Serve the community of Tyonek and the shareholders of Tyonek Native Corporation. The Foundation received its 501c3 status from the Internal Revenue Service in June 2009, and is a registered Non-Profit Corporation in the State of Alaska.

Ana Basee’ to the Tebughna Foundation, sponsors and the volunteers who made this possible! Thank you to the singers, dancers and performers who brought people together.


Growing Up Native: Sharing Culture

Singing at WEIO
Singing at WEIO

I’m fortunate that I grew up in a home where it was okay to be Native (aka Alaska Native, Athabascan, American Indian). My mother taught us about our Koyukon Athabascan culture. My grandmother shared stories. My dad taught us how to hunt, fish and take care of dogs. We were encouraged to share our culture with others.

I once competed to be Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO). That spring and summer, I learned a Koyukon Athabascan song, called “Good Bye My Sonny”. My family and friends of the family sewed traditional Athabascan regalia, including a dress, boots, gloves, belt and jewelry. We all came together to learn more about what it meant to be Athabascan. I didn’t win that year, but I had the opportunity to share what it meant to be Koyukon Athabascan. I did win an award for the best traditional dress.

My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, and I
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, and I

Participating in WEIO as an athlete, dancer, artist, ambassador or even in the audience is a great learning experience. WEIO will celebrate its 50th Anniversary on July 20-23, 2011 in Fairbanks, Alaska. Many of my friends and family will go to the interior for this momentous celebration. I hope to make it up also.

The experience of running for Miss WEIO prepared me for becoming Miss Indian TU (University of Tulsa). Serving as a cultural ambassador allowed me to learn even more about what it means to be Koyukon Athabascan and Alaska Native. I learned how to properly introduce myself. People know you by whose family you belong to. Alaska Native people ask me where I am from and who I’m related to.

An Alaska Native Introduction
I’m Angela Yatlin Gonzalez, originally from Huslia, Alaska. My Koyukon Athabascan name is Kla’dah Dalthna’. My parents are Al and Eleanor Yatlin.

My grandmothers, Lydia Simon and Alda Frank
My grandmothers, Lydia Simon and Alda Frank

My grandparents on my mother’s side were the late Edwin and Lydia Simon. My grandparents on my father’s side were the late George Frank and Minnie Yatlin, and Alda Frank (my grandfather’s second wife who currently lives in Galena, Alaska).

I surrounded myself with people who appreciated my unique cultural background. I hear stories of people who experienced racism. I experienced some too, and try to educate people when I can. Some people may look at me and see a stereotype, but there are a lot of good things out there too. Alaska Natives, like athlete Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, are breaking new ground and accomplishing great things. Learn more about some exemplary Alaska Natives in a book, Growing Up Native in Alaska by A J McClanahan.

Alaska Native people like to share their culture and enjoy reconnecting with each other to share food, songs and dance. I strive to learn about the many other cultures. To that end, I encourage you to share something about yourself in the comments below. Who are you? Whose family do you come from?

Anaa basee’ (Thank you) for allowing me to share a little bit about my culture!