Monday, March 26, 2007

NYO Toksook Invitational

I know that I made a weak attempt to explain the Native Youth Olympics (NYO) earlier on in my blogging history, but I have more pictures which will hopefully shed some light on these unique cultural games. Last weekend we had 12 schools from the Lower Kuskokwim School District visit Toksook for this invitational meet. That's about an extra 120 students in the school than we are used to. Yikes!!!
The meet started off on Friday afternoon with the Kneel Jump. Basically athletes kneel at the line, similar to standing broad jump, and then try to jump forward off their knees as far as they can, without falling backwards. Sorry no pictures of this. The next event was the wrist carry. This event looks even more painful than the kneel jump, if you can imagine that. Athletes wrap their wrist over a thick dowel rod. Then they grab their forarm below the wrist and lift their entire body off the ground while two other students, any would be volunteer, carry them down to the other side of the gym and back again, or as long as the athletes can hang on. It just doesn't look enjoyable.
The next few events are difficult to get good pictures for, especially with my picture quality challenged camera. The two foot high kick (kick a ball or small stuffed animal skin about the size of a grapefruit suspended in the air with two feet and land on two feet again), the one foot high kick (kick a suspended ball with one foot and land on that same foot again), the toe kick, and the Alaskan High Kick. These last two events are other ones that just look difficult and dangerous. Let's start with toe kick. Athletes stand behind a line (standing broad jump). There is a dowel rod lying on the floor in front of them, maybe 24 inches to 80 inches. They have to jump out and kick the dowel rod, just with their toes, so that the stick rolls straight back and the athlete still lands with both of their feet together. Look at the picture on the right and you can see a blur of a jumper with toes just touching the stick. If an athlete jumps successfully, the stick gets moved farther out. Our state champion can toe kick over 80 inches.

The next event is the Alaskan High Kick. This is an event that you might have some trouble with the first time. Athletes have to kick a stuffed animal skin (ball) suspended at a certain height while holding a foot with one hand and using the other hand to elevate the body. I guess a picture may help with this image. This picture of Simeon here is showing winning technique. Simeon is an 8th grader that took first in the high school competition. His technique and ability is pretty amazing. If athletes are successful at kick the ball, they still have to land on the foot they kicked with and not fall over.

Now that brings us to one hand reach. One hand reach is similar to Alaskan High Kick in a couple of ways. One reason is that you have to support yourself on one hand and you can't fall over. The main difference is that you have to reach for the suspended stuffed animal skin (ball) with the other hand instead of a foot. It requires the most balance and concentration, I think. This student from the village of Oscarville was the winner by a long shot. She had great technique and was fun to watch.

Other events at the games were the Seal hop, Eskimo stick pull, and the Indian stick pull. The seal hop is another entertaining and torturous event that most people would not even want to try. This event is unique because athletes actually compete at the same time. Its a race of endurance. Athletes have to start behind a line in the down position of the push up position with their chest just above the ground. While staying the down position, they have to use their arms and toes to hop forward repeatedly until they collapse form exhaustion. The whole time athletes are hopping, their backs have to be straight and their hips and but have to stay even with their shoulders. They guys have to hop with their first knuckles curled under their hands where the ladies get to hop on their full palms. I've tried it and it is tiring. It also causes blisters and raw skin on your knuckles, but it is a great workout. The two stick pull events are not quite so interesting to watch, but the idea is still very unique. Here is my friend Deanna with an already greased up stick that is used for the Indian Stick Pull. She got to make sure the stick had enough grease on it and I got to judge who won each match. It's a dirty job, but somebody has got to do it. Thanks Deanna!

Well, This is probably one of the longest blogs I've posted. I hope you have enjoyed following me through an NYO meet. It' s a spectacle to watch, but it is taken very seriously up here. Each event is based on a specific tradition from their cultural history, many of which I don't understand or haven't learned about yet. I don't think that any of these events will ever make it to the World Olympics, but then again, have you ever watched curling?

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Eternal Johnny Cash

So the most recent exciting event that I took part in was the Nelson Island High School talent show. This is the kind of event where all the students are embarassed to perform so they don't sign up, but they all love to watch people. Here in lies the problem. With no one signed up, there is nothing to watch. A couple of students get the picture, so they eventually sign up for something. There were quite a few adults that signed. I just signed up in case there weren't enough acts to get the talent show going in the first place.

There were a couple of small dance groups (Yup'ik dance that is). A couple of parents and other staff members did a little skit. One teacher played some Beethoven on his cheeks (not butt cheeks) and then played his harmonica while his Australian Shepherd dog howled with distaste.

And yes, I played some guitar. And what other inspiration should I have other than Johnny Cash, so I came out strong with a little Folsom Prison Blues. I've sang it enough in Kareoke competitions and I've been practicing it on guitar, so I figured I could hold my own.

Well, I finished the intro and started stumming and all of the sudden all the young students and some adults in the bleachers started clapping, which kind of threw me off at first, but I went with it. I gotta admit, that the guitar solo didn't go quite so smoothly and some students were able to recognize that I kind of screwed it up a little. Most people thought it was great though. Well, after the show was over, TJ (our principal) talked with the judges and got up to hand out the prize money. Third place got $25, second place got $50, and first place walked away with $100 cash. I knew that people really enjoy Johnny Cash in this region of Alaska, but I didn't expect to walk away with Benjamin Franklin in my pocket.

Some of the student acts were really funny and good, but apparently Johnny took the show. TJ admited that I kind of stole the show as well, which was a good thing. Anyway, the man in black isn't dead in Toksook Bay by any means. I don't remember Johnny having to look directly at his strings when he was playing though. Students are still coming up to me and calling me Johnny Cash, which I humbly admit that I'm just an imposter. They still enjoy it.

Until the next big adventure....
Thanks for reading,

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Yup'ik Dance Festival

There are many advantages to living and teaching in Toksook Bay. It is a beautiful area, but it is also one of the largest villages in the Yukon - Kuskokwim Delta, so if there are any large cultural events, they are likely to happen in Toksook. In the fall there is the Blackberry Festival and in the spring there is the Yup'ik Dance Festival. Now it doesn't compare to the Portland Beer Festival or other large events down in the lower 48, but remember where I am. I live in the most rural part of the United States, so when 300 - 350 people from other villages come to celebrate Yup'ik Dancing, it is a huge ordeal. The total population of Toksook is only 600 people, so imagine Portland increasing its population by 50 % for a big event.
There were about 6 - 8 villages that came to celebrate, visit friends, and dance for three days. Walking up to the highschool the first sign that tells you something is going on is about 30 - 40 snow machines (mobiles) parked outside the school in a pretty free frawl manner. All the people that come to Toksook usually have friends or family they stay with. The village also pulls together an incredible amount of merchandise and supplies that are given to the visiting dancers on the last day of the festival.

There is everything from gas cans, coolers, material for Qaspaqs (traditional woman's dress), animal pelts, food, and general supplies. Someone made a nice wooden sled to give away. Sleds are used kind of like a trailer that you pull behind your snow machine. There was even a nice wood stove that could be used inside a house or steam house.

The dancing is the main event though. People are dancing from about 1 - 2 pm until about 12 midnight every night. Yup'ik dancing is set up in a very specific and cultural format. Typically, the men are in the front, kneeling and the women stand in the back. The drummers are in the very back of the dance group. They are also singing the words to the song as well as keeping the beat with their drums. Generally a song will start out soft and quiet. Dancers will go through the motions rather lethargically. The drummers will either call out "Pumya", which means again, or they will just keep drumming and start the song over. Songs will usually be repeated about 3 - 6 times and each time, the drumming and singing gets louder. The dancers respond by becoming more active. Men bob up and down on their knees and women start really bending their knees with the rhythm. I saw one man getting into the beat so much that he was actually jumping into the air from his knees to the beat.

This man was the most animated dancer I have ever seen. He had the whole crowd laughing hysterically with his exagerated motions. He was incredibly athletic and amazing to watch.

Well, keep saving your money and maybe you can witness this incredible event yourself next year. Until then, stay tuned to dirksan for more updates from the frozen winter lands of Alaska.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The coldest I've ever been

Yesterday, Brett knocked on my door to show me his new dog sled. He has been working on building it for a few months now and finally got it finished. This sled has a lower center of gravity, so he is more willing to take passengers and not have to worry about tipping the sled. We also have three interns with us at the high school, so he had promised to take them out and the weather seemed to be clearing up this day, so he gave the green light. He asked me if I would come out and help him get the team set up and then I could go for a ride as well with one of the interns. He was only using six dogs, so he could take only two at a time in the sled.
It was pretty awesome learning how to hook the dogs up to the harnesses and keep them from fighting. Blue started in on Lupa almost right away and received a quick smack on the nose to get her straightened out. There is a big ice hook that is used to keep the front dogs from backing up or turning around and two ice hooks used behind the sled to keep the team from moving forward. Then a dog is hooked up in the first, second and third positions. Eventually the second dogs are hooked up next to their partners in the first, second, and third positions. Then two people climbed into the sled and hunkered down. When the first two left with Brett, the third intern and I went back into my house to get out of the wind and stay warm. After about 20 minutes, Brett came back and it was our turn.
The dogs just didn't want to go into the wind and it was starting to gust out of the north off and on. We let them take their own path for the most part, but eventually had to make them suck it up and go back straight into the wind to get home. That took forever. The dogs were not choosing the trail well at all and we almost flipped the sled on a little mound of ice. Well, eventually the north wind kicked up to about 40 miles an hour and kept at it for about an hour or two. We had a teacher intern with us also and once we got to within sight of another teacher's house, we just told her to get into that house quick. She had snow and ice all over her face. I continued with Brett to get the dog team back up to the kennel, but I didn't have goggles and my hands were freezing. Eventually, we made it back with Brett leading the dogs with the tether of the front two while I stood on the sled and held the brake so that the other dogs wouldn't get ahead of the two leaders and get all tangled up. After we stopped and got the dogs tied up, I headed back to check on our intern friend. When I got into the house, my hands began to swell and get sooooo painful that I became nauseated. I finally calmed down and was able to go back out. I think I got my first signs of frost nip (not bite) though. good experience, but I don't think I want to repeat it any time soon. Never leave home without your goggles, no matter how nice it seems outside.
Hope you are enjoying my adventures.


I finally got some pictures of manaqing (ice fishing) for all of you die hards out there that have the winter fishing blues. This is a student of mine (Timothy) who is using my manaq (ice fishing stick). Notice that Timothy is not wearing a hat. It was probably one of the nicest days out this winter. I actually rode my bike out on the frozen bay with all my fishing gear this day. Of course then all the kids that are out fishing want to take my bike for a ride. I got to barter a spin on my bike for a spin on a snow machine. Actually it also involved pulling a sled full of kids behind the snow machine. I had a pretty good day fishing this day. When I moved to this area of the bay where other people were fishing, I started out slow, but by the end of the day, I was catching two to three times more fish than anyone else. I attribute my success to one of my personally tied manaqing flies that I was using. I wonder how many fly tiers tie ice fishing flies. Maybe I've found my niche.
Here is a look at the number of fish that I ended up with just at this site. I gave all of this catch to my friend (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) Jamie who probably gave them to one of her relatives. All in all, I probably ended up with about 45 - 50 fish in a couple of hours.

It definitely gets cold standing out there, so you have to really really dress warm. Even though I was dressed warm, I found that I had to take a quick spin on my bike every once in a while to get my blood flowing again. The bike rides pretty well on the snow, but occasionally you get bogged down when your tires sink into a heavy drift that looks hard packed. I've come close to busting my keister on the ice too. Yikes!
Happy ice fishing everyone.


Musk Ox Hunting

Here in the village, people go fishing and hunting all the time, but certain events cause talk to sweep the town more quickly. One such event is when people come in with large game, such as a seal, walrus, moose, or musk ox. On this particularly day, Marty and Simeon, teachers at the school, returned from a musk ox hunting trip and both had made a kill. Simeon had already cleaned his and was returning home, but I got to check out Marty's kill and help with the process a little as well.
For those of you who have never physically seen a musk ox, myself included, they are a very unique animal. Moses Charles is a high school student that went out with Marty and Sim to get their musk ox. Here is he holding the head from Marty's Bull. This male probably stood about shoulder to shoulder with a adult person of average height. One amazing feature that I noticed right away was the amount of wool on the forehead of these animals. Marty said that he took two shots with his hand gun point blank into the animal's forehead and didn't phase the beast in the slightest. Their foreheads are almost solid bone, hence the saying, "dumb as an ox", plus the wool is about 3 - 4 inches thick. The animals skull is vertially bullet proof.
Marty finished skinning his musk ox and then cut off the back strap, the piece of meat that runs over top of the spine, and quarters from the shoulders and hips. It's probably enough meat to last through out the rest of the winter and maybe into next winter. Most people use the meat for either soup, stew, or perhaps steaks. I haven't eaten Musk Ox yet so you will have to wait for another blog entry.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Still alive!!!

Well, I'm still here and kicking! I won't tell it's been easy. I survived the harshest part of the winter. The short days where it was dark much more than it was light. The coldest days when it didn't get above 0 degrees F. And the windy and snowy days when my house sucked snow out of the sky like a giant brand new Hoover. This doesn't even show the worst of the snow that built up against my house. For a long time, my porch was permenantly dark because my windows were completely covered up by snow. That did make the skiing better.

This is a picture of my entrance way one morning before I went to school. It took me a good 20 minutes to get out of my house that morning.

This isn't even the hardest part of my life up here. Oh, those 7th graders are the true challenge up here at the end of the earth. I'm really learning a lot about myself working with this age group. I'm learning that consistency pays off and that you can never be too organized. I'm learning that a laugh can do a lot for me at the end of the day. I'm also learning that no matter how much it seems that some students do not want me up here and how beat down and drug out I feel at the end of some days, that there are still some students that make it all worth while. I try to hold on to those moments with all my will and strength. Still I want to reintroduce corporal punishment back into the school sometimes. Just kidding.

Anyway, it's been one of those days.
I'll be blogging more regularly again. Don't give up on my blog slackness.