The Fine Arts Building was full of seal hops and scissor kicks Oct. 8 as people gathered to watch the film “To Play the Games — Capturing the Spirit of American Culture.” The 25-minute documentary is a project by UAA student Phillip Blanchett and his film-techie friend, Jonathon Stanton. They hoped to capture the traditional and modern perspectives of Alaska ‘s Native games.
The creative spark ignited Blanchett after he attended the American Indian Film Festival last year.
“It was like a big lightbulb in my head,” he said.
Blanchett started participating in the Alaska Native games when he was in junior high.
“I was so passionate about the games and I knew so many little details and intricacies,” Blanchett said. “I wanted to take all the aspects that I appreciate and put them together so other people will sort of understand the energy and the emotions of what we go through as athletes and participants of the games.”
With a four-man camera crew, Blanchett and Stanton began capturing their story at the 2003 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. The duo received financial assistance from the First Alaskans Institute, Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Yukon-Kuskoquim Health Cooperation to help cover production fees. At WEIO, they interviewed the “greats” of the games, the men and women who have set records and whose efforts are keeping the spirit of their sport alive today.
“I wanted to basically tap into the emotions and the excitement and also celebrate the heroes of the game…. I feel like it’s not shared enough,” Blanchett said.
Robert “Big Bob” Aiken, spoke throughout the documentary. Aiken is an expert at the four-man carry, an Alaska Native games event, which evolved from the task of carrying seals or anything excessively heavy for long distances.
“A man has got to know his limitations,” he said in the film.
Aiken holds the WEIO men’s record in the Eskimo stick pull, Indian stick pull and arm pull. In the film, he explains how the events exercise survival skills passed down as traditions. The Indian stick pull is an event that resembles catching fish with your bare hands, Aiken said. It involves two participants sitting across from one another, each using only one hand to vie for the possession of a slippery stick greased in Crisco.
The Native games are played globally by many different people and cultures. At WEIO, people unite to celebrate their heritage. From blanket tosses to Native dances, people of all ages get involved. Blanchett wanted to capture this on film.
In one scene, a small boy captivates the audience as he performs a solo dance at the center of a packed auditorium while Eskimo drummers provide rhythm. In another scene, women bedecked in traditional attire groove to old-school rap beats in a song Blanchett wrote with his band, Pamyua. The audience responded with laughter and applause.
Asta Keller, who holds the WEIO women’s record in the ear pull, was in the audience Friday night for the film screening. Young participants of the Alaskan Native games were there as well. Several attendees demonstrated events before the film began. John Chagluak of Bethel challenged Blanchett to a friendly two-foot high kick competition.
Tina Harness, a nursing student at UAA who attended the screening, got chills while watching the film. “I felt pride for my culture,” she said.