Alaska Native Youth games celebrates 40th game

By Van Williams
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) April 2010

The year was 1971. Soft contacts were introduced, Federal Express and Greenpeace were just getting started and gas cost .40 cents a gallon.

It was also the year the Native Youth games were born.

Native games had long been a custom in rural Alaska before the NYO competition was founded by a group of Anchorage teachers organized by Sarah Hanuske, a coordinator for the state’s boarding home program.
The idea of creating a statewide competition was to give the relocated students living with strangers in Anchorage a taste of home because prior to NYO they had no real connection with where they came from during the school year.

While they were hundreds of miles from their villages, life in the big city made them feel millions of miles away.

That’s why starting something like NYO was so important, said David Gransbury, a former state liaison officer who found students boarding homes.

“We knew it was important to the kids,” said Gransbury, who later opened and still owns the Ulu Factory. “We knew right away that it was worth while because you could see the enthusiasm level.”

Gransbury, 64, said the idea originally came from a group of relocated ninth graders who were enrolled in the boarding home program. Eventually the idea was put into motion in the spring of 1971 by a group that included Hanuske, Gransbury and Benny Snowball.

At that time, before the landmark Molly Hootch case settled in 1976, many rural villages didn’t have high schools and so the state transferred hundreds of students to Anchorage, where they stayed with strangers and attended a separate boarding school.

“For a million reasons it didn’t work,” said former boarding school teacher Esther Cox.

Most of the students dropped out of the program. Some claimed to have been abused, treated like servants and isolated during meals. And while other students reported enjoyable experiences, the program ultimately failed.

“They were living with strange families. They were living in a culture that was totally different,” said Cox, a teacher for 33 years. “Of course, this was 1971, and there wasn’t the movement from rural Alaska to urban Alaska like there is now.”

In 1976, the state of Alaska reached an out-of-court settlement in the Molly Hootch case, which was named after the 15-year-old girl who had to leave Emmonak to attend high school. The state agreed to build and operate high schools in all Alaska communities that have an elementary school and at least 10 students.

“Molly Hootch changed the face of education in Alaska,” Cox said.

And NYO changed the way Native Games were viewed, taking a rural activity and making it mainstream competition where bragging rights between villages could finally be settled.

Hanuske, a coordinator for the state’s boarding home program, spearheaded the team effort in getting NYO off the ground, Gransbury said.

“She was my boss,” he said. “She was supportive and she helped out a lot. She gave us the freedom to pursue it.”

It took a lot of effort behind-the-scenes from people like Gransbury and Snowball to make it a possibility. They came up with the name, found an empty gymnasium and wrote up the rules.

“It really got going fast,” Gransbury said. “We had a lot of leeway to issue travel authorization for coaches and teams to get down here because we wanted other kids from around the state to participate in it.”

The competition is open to all Alaska students in grades 7 to 12 regardless of ethnic origin. Just like with other school sports, participants must be in good standing with their academics. Events include the One Foot High Kick, Eskimo Stick Pull, Seal Hop, One Hand Reach and more.

The inaugural NYO featured a dozen teams from places like Sitka, Nome and Kotzebue, in addition to an Anchorage team from the boarding schools. The first competition took one afternoon and featured 100 students.

Now it stretches three days and includes more than 600 kids.

Current NYO coordinator Brian Walker, of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, credits the growth to increased awareness of the significance behind the events, which are based on time-honored hunting and fishing techniques.

“Keeping our tradition alive is very important, especially now that people are moving from smaller villages to bigger cities,” Walker said. “They are leaving their traditions and their cultures somewhat behind. This is one way they can stay connected with their culture and it gives the kids a sense of belonging, a sense of community.”

Walker knows this from personal experience.

He moved from Anvik to Anchorage at age 12. It was a difficult transition. He felt like he lost connection with his heritage after moving and called himself a “closet Native.”

When he was introduced to Native games in 1985, it changed his life.

“It gave me strength to know I could do anything,” Walker said.

And now he’s applying those methods to his life today. The widowed father with three teenagers (two boys and a girl) is teaching the lessons he learned as a Native champion to his 15-year-old high school sophomore son, who is thinking of pursuing an engineering degree in college.

“He came home with this whole list of all these different classes that he would have to pass before the end of his junior year, and he was just struggling with the idea, saying, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ “ Walker said.

“So I started talking to him about when he was competing at NYO and how the knowledge he gained ... whether he could beat the other person, whether he can get an A in Calculus, it was just a matter of doing it.

“It’s like Norman Vaughan said, ‘Dream big and dare to fail.’ And if I haven’t done it, I have given it my best.”