Language: Bering Strait Iñupiaq
aqsraatchaun “high-kick ball”
Language: North Slope Iñupiaq
The high-kick games, when they played in the qargi (ceremonial house) - they usually do that when the different tribes get together [Messenger Feast]. Each tribe tries to beat the other’s kick. When I was young, I used to kick that high [above the head].”
—Jacob Ahwinona, 2001
High-kick competitions were once part of Kivgiq, the Messenger Feast. As each man entered the qargi he tried to kick an inflated animal bladder or ball suspended from the ceiling. An Iñupiaq story tells of a young woman who owned two balls; the larger was the sun, and the smaller the moon. The sun ball fell (or in one version was dropped by Raven) and burst open, bringing light to the world. The circular designs seen on this ball represent the sun and commemorate this ancient story.
Region: Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska
Object Category: Ceremony
Dimensions: Length 19cm
Accession Date: 1936
Source: William M. Fitzhugh Collection
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 193368.000
High kick is a traditional test of agility that has been carried forward as a modern sport. Early visitors to Iñupiaq communities saw children and adults kick balls that hung at head level or higher, using both of their feet.(1) With each try, the ball was raised higher.(2) Competitors perform the two-footed high kick, as it is known today, in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, the Native Youth Olympics, and Arctic Winter Games. Jesse Frankson reached a ball that was 7’10” off the floor, which is the current world record for men (as of 2004). Donna Elliott holds the women’s record, at 6’1”.(3)
The high kick was originally part of Kivgiq, the Messenger Feast, a winter dance and gift-giving festival hosted by Iñupiaq villages of northwest Alaska and by Yup’ik communities of Norton Sound, the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and Nunivak Island.(4) Kivgiq ended in the early years of the 20th century, but North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, Sr. helped to revive it at Barrow in 1988.
Barrow’s annual Kivgiq celebration in February now brings visitors and dance groups from across Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Greenland.(5)
Before a traditional Messenger Feast, leading men of a village, usually umialit [boat captains], sent messengers to the leaders of another community to invite them and their relatives to five days of ceremonies. At Utqiaġvik [Barrow], guests came to the qargi [community house] to view the great pile of gifts that they would receive, including sealskins filled with oil, weapons, sleds, and kayaks. As each man entered he tested his skill at kicking an inflated animal bladder that hung from the ceiling.(6) An Elder from Kobuk remembered a long-ago Messenger Feast when guests from Kotzebue challenged them to a high kick contest. Two young Kobuk women took the honors.(7)
Umialit who had been guests at a Messenger Feast worked to save up food and gifts so that they could host the event themselves. Martha Stackhouse writes, “It was always a joy to see relatives and friends after not seeing them for several years.
What excitement the news brought! Kivgiq was a way to ensure the communities continued their friendship and cooperative relationship.”(9)
Iñupiaq oral tradition includes a story about a young woman who owned two balls; the larger was the sun and the smaller the moon. When the big ball burst open (in one story, Raven drops it from the sky), sunlight spread over the world for the first time.(9) Circular designs on this ball may represent the sun, as on St. Lawrence Island balls.
1. Bruce 1894:114; Giddings 1961:156; Simpson 1875:238; Stoney 1900:91
2. Oquilluk 1981:103
4. Bodfish 1991:23-24; Curtis 1930: 146-47, 168-77, 213-14; Fienup-Riordan 1994:324-54; Giddings 1961:52-60; Hawkes 1913, 1914; Kingston 1999; Lantis 1947:67-73; Morrow 1984; Nelson 1899:361-63; Oquilluk 1973:149-50; Ostermann and Holtved 1952:103-12; Spencer 1957:210-28
5. Turner 1996:92-106; http://www.co.north-slope.ak.us/nsb/70.htm
6. Spencer 1957:223
7. Giddings 1961:59-60
9. Boas 1894:205-08; Garber 1940:29-32