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Inuit sports teach traditional skills

Arctic Winter Games selection tournament coming to Rankin Inlet this summer
Wesley Innukshuk will be coaching Rankin Inlet athletes in Arctic sports this summer. In August, a qualifying tournament for the Arctic Winter Games will take place in the Kivalliq capital and bring in the best of Nunavut. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo

Wesley Innukshuk was a young man when he first competed in the Arctic Winter Games, back when Rankin Inlet was part of Team Northwest Territories.

“My first Arctic Winter Games was something to remember,” he said. “My experience was, wow, all these great athletes, role models. I was like, I hope to become a role model some day.”

That was 1996. He went on to compete again in 1998, and then in 2000 for Team Nunavut.

Now, he’ll be coaching Rankin Inlet hopefuls as the 2023 Arctic Winter Games selection tournament is headed to the Kivalliq capital August 11 to 14.

The last time Innukshuk participated in Arctic sports, also known as Inuit games, was for the Kivalliq Summer Games.

After posting about practice opportunities for Rankin Inlet athletes a few weeks ago, he was surprised to get more than 10 interested participants already.

“I was expecting two or three, because we haven’t played Arctic sports here in Rankin for like seven, eight years I believe,” said Innukshuk.

Arctic sports test individual athletic ability in a series of games revolving around jumping, kicking and other actions. The premier event is the one-foot high kick, where athletes must kick a sealskin ball in the air and land on the same foot they kicked with. Many other games take place during Arctic sports competitions, including two-foot high kick, Alaskan high kick, sledge jump, triple jump and more.

One of the other main events, usually performed last due to the damage it leaves athletes with, is the knuckle hop, where participants try to ‘hop’ around the gym on their knuckles for as long as they can. There is usually blood.

“When you’re out hunting, you’ve got to be active,” said Innukshuk about where Arctic sports come from, giving the example of jumping from ice to ice during spring breakup.

“If you’re hunting for caribou, you’ve got to be cautious and know what to expect. If you’re hunting for narwhal, seal or beluga, the harpoon throw, you’ve got to be fit for that.”

Each sport reflects a needed skill on the land, and they were also used as a way to celebrate when Inuit gathered in the past.

“The one-foot high kick is the most popular event in Arctic sports,” said Innukshuk. “Some will kick over nine feet five, nine feet seven. That’s pretty high. You want them to kick it so you can feel the excitement too at the same time, especially when they break a record. Something inside you, you just want to yell and explode and cheer for them.”

Back when Innukshuk competed, he remembered how zoned-in he would get during those moments of trying to hit a new personal record, to where he couldn’t see or hear the crowd. But when he hit the sealskin ball, it all exploded out of him.

For Innukshuk, the chance to coach is exciting, and also nerve-wracking. Any Rankin Inlet residents are welcome to contact him on Facebook or by coming to the community hall radio station to sign up. There are categories for juniors and seniors, males and females in the games.

Innukshuk just has one stipulation.

“I’ll be open minded to anyone that wants to try, but I’m not going to tolerate any alcohol or drug use when I’m coaching,” he said.

“That part’s a big no to me. I’ve done it before. I’ve used alcohol in the past. I thought it was awesome and stuff, but no, I was wrong, and I’m sorry for being that way in the past. I wouldn’t want to see a young athlete going to Arctic Winter Games and just be drunk or whatnot. That’s not nice. If you want to be a role model, you’ve got to respect people and if you want to be respected, then be respectful for others too.”