Savoonga artists bring blanket toss to Juneau

John Waghiyi, Jr. finishes work on a walrus-hide blanket in Juneau on Aug. 29, 2019. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene (right), were artists-in-residence at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

John Waghiyi, Jr. finishes work on a walrus-hide blanket on Aug. 29, 2019, in Juneau. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene (right), were artists-in-residence at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Two Alaska Native artists from St. Lawrence Island spent a week in Juneau sharing their work. The couple’s residency culminated with a blanket toss, with a walrus-hide blanket finished only minutes before.

Around 70 people gathered outside the Sealaska building in downtown Juneau on a sunny afternoon. John Waghiyi, Jr. told them to grunt — and they did.

“I feel like I’m on the ice pack!” he said. “(It sounds like) there’s a whole herd of walrus.”

 As he spoke, young helpers hurriedly threaded a thick rope through the holes around the edge of the walrus-hide blanket, finishing the handles.

Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene, used the time to teach the crowd a walrus dance from their hometown, Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

Waghiyi explained how the blanket will be used, likening it to a 14-foot trampoline, “But in this case people grab onto the rope around the edges, and a toss leader will direct everybody to pull in unison and propel a person up. Based on experience they can go higher and higher.”

When the handles are done, one crucial thing is still missing: People, lots of them, to grab hold of the handles and pull.

Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl called out to passersby on the street: “We need pullers! Come and help! Come and help!”

Worl asked Waghiyi to create the blanket during his week-long artist residency at the institute. He had the hide already, from a walrus he harvested years ago to feed his family.

The home of the blanket toss, like walrus, is far from Southeast Alaska.

“It’s Inuit, Inupiat, Siberian Yupik — it’s predominantly an up north event. Nalukataq is what they call it. It’s a celebration of the harvest of the bowhead whale,” said Waghiyi.

But in more recent years, the blanket toss has become a feature across Alaska in competitive events like the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and Native Youth Olympics.

When enough pullers have grabbed hold of the blanket, Juneau Native Youth Olympics coach Kyle Worl climbed onto the blanket. He steadied himself as he was lifted a few feet above the ground. He double-checked that everyone understood the process: a few gentle pulls as he counted down, and then the big one. He landed a tidy backflip.

Kyle Worl does a back flip during a blanket toss in Juneau on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Kyle Worl does a back flip during a blanket toss in Juneau on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

The second, and final, jumper of the day was 9-year-old Race Katchatag, a young relative of the Waghiyis who lives in Juneau. It was his first time jumping, and he did it cross-legged. He left the blanket grinning.

“I thought I was gonna fall, like hit the ground, but I didn’t,” he said.

Katchatag offered this advice to first-time blanket toss jumpers: “Just like, believe in yourself.”

The blanket Waghiyi created will be used for blanket toss competitions in Juneau for years to come.

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