Juggling in Alaska as an
historic native American pastime

By Jim Kerr
Institute of Social and Economic Research, Anchorage, Alaska

Juggler's World, Vol 36, No 1, March 1984

JUGGLING - PROFESSION TO SOME, recreation to others - is an art known to people of many cultures, including the Eskimos. They are among the recreational jugglers of the world, and have been combining both simple and more complex juggling patterns with song for many years.

When and how the Eskimos first developed their juggling skills is uncertain, but the evidence available seems to point to the development of this pastime within the Eskimo culture, rather than being introduced by western society. Although it seems to be a dying pastime among them, juggling is still enjoyed today .

During my research,: I spoke with several Eskimos from Alaskan villages who remember juggling as a part of their childhood. Anna Lomack, a Yupik Eskimo from the Bethel area of Alaska, is over 90 years old - possibly 100. However, her children and grandchildren remember her juggling from their childhoods.

Another Eskimo, Mary Adams from Barrow, told me of how she was taught to juggle by her mother. "My mother did it; she learned from her mother. It was just something handed down to us by older girls and aunts and cousins."

In northern Canada, the Netsilik Eskimos, a people relatively untouched by western civilization, have been filmed juggling two stones in one hand. Juggling seems to have been an endemic part of these people's culture.

It appears that juggling was just for fun and done by the girls and young women in the Eskimo villages, while the boys and men were usually busy learning and sharpening their hunting skills. However, John Aulize, an elderly man from Unalakleet, Alaska, recalls occasions when the entire village would juggle.

In recent years, Barrow has included juggling races in its Fourth of July festivities. The contestants must juggle at least two pebbles in one hand while running. Although people of both sexes and of all ages compete in the race, the women usually win.

I have seen Eskimos juggle using the shower and the cascade patterns. Mary Adams can juggle with both patterns, and she also had a few variations of her own. One of the patterns involved cupping the hands together and juggling two objects. This was, perhaps, to imitate a bird or fish, she said. As many as three and four objects were juggled in this manner. Mary's mother could shower five pebbles.

In their book Yupik Eskimo Songs, Thomas Johnstone and Tupou Pulu write "fast rhythmic songs for the pebble-juggling game were heard by the earliest Arctic explorers... from Siberia to Greenland." In addition to the Yupik song documented in their book, they have recordings of several other juggling songs from other villages, including songs from the Inupiat-speaking villages.

Surprisingly, juggling songs rarely have anything to do with juggling. Some Eskimos refer to these songs as "non-sickle" songs - a term that may have its roots in the English word "nonsense." For example, a certain song says, "hoo hoo hoo la la la, I thought it was a grizzly bear or maybe it's just a polar bear." Generally speaking, singing and juggling were used to pass the time and have fun.

Unfortunately, this age-old pastime seems to be quietly dying but. As Mary Adams put it, "When we were children, we didn't have marbles or dolls or toys, so we would go down to the beach and find two pebbles the right size and just juggle... Children today have dolls and these kinds of things to keep them occupied."

As Eskimos become more involved in modern-day living, will they leave juggling behind? Let's hope not. As long as people enjoy juggling and share that joy with others, it can continue to enlighten their lives. I hope they keep it up.

Sources of information for the article and special thanks go to the following:

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