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  • Bethany Buckingham

AWG exhibit is more than memories

Wasilla – The Arctic Winter Games embodies culture, youth, and the northern experience.  While the spirit of AWG can be experienced in person through sporting competitions and cultural exchanges, the history and stories shine through the 50 Years of Arctic Winter Games exhibit on display at the Wasilla Museum and Visitor Center. 

“I think today the Arctic Winter Games is truly a northern experience, relying on ice, snow and native sports,” said George Smith, who spoke at the Museum Wednesday night about the exhibit and his experiences with the Arctic Winter Games.  He was first involved in Team Alaska Mission Staff from 1992 through 2003 and then became a member of the state board in 2005.  He has seen a lot in his years involved with AWG.  Smith worked with over fifty AWG collecting enthusiasts to gather the items in the exhibit.  Every item has a story.

“I had a friend tell me that my Jersey was on display at the Museum,” said Syrilyn Tong a current volunteer for the AWG2024, who lives in Fairbanks.  “I was a goalie on the 1990 Team Alaska women’s hockey team.”

“We lost in double overtime that year to Yukon,” she said.  “We started at 8 pm and we played for four and half hours straight.  I was actually relieved when the game ended!”

Tong brought her wife, Sarah Albers, to see her Jersey on display in the exhibit.  It brought back a lot of memories for Tong, which she shared.

“I’ve been a player, a coach and volunteer,” she stated.  “I volunteered to run the broomball event in the 88 games when women’s hockey ws canceled.  Then I was asked to be the assistant Chef de Mission and later Chef de Mission for Team Alaska in 2012.  It was great traveling to all the different places with AWG including Yellowknife and Whitehorse.”

Tong and Albers are members of the Fairbanks Community Emergency Response Team contingent that came to volunteer at the Arctic Winter Games.  This is Albers first-time volunteering for the games.

“As volunteers we get to experience a lot of different games and events,” said Albers. “We’ve been security for hockey and Dene games which has been great to watch the crowd and the athletes.”

“It truly warms my heart to see the athletes,” says Tong with fond memories of her time in the Arctic Winter Games. “I was there, as an athlete and a coach and now a volunteer.  To see the engagement of the athletes and to know they will meet each other year after year like I did, it is such an important part to see happen again.”

“To see these kids compete in the various sports, but when they come off the ice or the court, they are friends,” said Albers.  “That is truly the spirit of the games.”

And that sentiment is continued throughout the exhibit curated by Smith and the Alaska State Museum. 

“I feel the three main parts of the Arctic Winter Games are the youth, the culture, and the northern experience shared by these athletes,” said Smith.  “I’ve seen the games evolve from 500 athletes from The Northwest Territories, The Yukon and Alaska grow to over 2000 athletes to include the nations of Northern Alberta, Nunavut, Greenland, Russia, Sápmi and Nunavik.  It’s great to see so many people involved.”

The sports have also grown from ten sports to twenty.  The Arctic and Dene Games were added in 1992 but were solely men’s competition. In 2004 the international committee decided to include women in the Dene Games.

With the sports expanding in the year 2000 and the athletes’ numbers growing, the international committee had to decide on 1. Get rid of some of the contingents, 2. Get rid of some of the sports, or 3. Get rid of the adults competing, according to Smith. 

“One and two were not very popular options,” said Smith.  The international committee decided to eliminate adults from the sport except for the Arctic and Dene games.

“They did keep the adults competing in the Arctic and Dene games because culturally the knowledge is passed through competition between elders and youth in the villages,” Smith stated.

The big question from the audience at his talk, ‘What about the pins?’

One of the highlights of the exhibit is the over 1900 pins on display showing how far pin trading has come since the early days of the games.  Pin trading has been called the twenty-first sport of the games.  Athletes, coaches, volunteers, venues, sponsors and more create and exchange pins throughout the week of the games.

“In the beginning, 1970, there was only one pin, and it was the international committee pin, the gold ulu,” Smith reminisced.  He stated that by 1980 pin collecting was catching on, and in 1982 we see the first sports pins.  It wasn’t until 1992 that the first and probably only puzzle pin came out.

“Everyone was collecting these pins and were looking at them wondering why they were all different shapes,” Smith remembers. “It wasn’t until Friday that they revealed a paper that had the outline when all the pins were put together spelled out AWG.”

Smith notes that there was not much change in pins or any other puzzle pins until 2004 when Team Nunavut created an igloo with their contingent pins.  According to Smith, it wasn’t really until 2012 that you see the addition of multiple pins creating one image that we see today.

“I think the teams started getting together the year before to see ‘what can we do better than last year’.”  Smith has been impressed with the ingenuity and artistry of the pins each year.

In 1986 there were 80 pins total.  By 1994 that number has increased to 108.  The largest number of pins in one game was the 2000 games with 195 pins.  This year during the AWG 2024 there are about 157 pins available to collect.  Be on the lookout for pin trading at the Palmer Depot or any of the venues you attend.  Start your pin trading collection today.

“I collected a few my first games and thought, this is fun,” Smith said.  “By the end of the week I was hooked.  You get to meet great people through pin trading and share your memories of the games.”

The Arctic Winter Games exhibit is on display at the Wasilla Museum and Visitor Center, located at 391 N Main Street in downtown Wasilla.  The Museum is open Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 3 pm.  Call 907-373-9071 for more information or to schedule a tour of the exhibit.  The exhibit will be at the Museum through Friday, March 29, 2024.


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