I am Yup’ik
In order to survive, sometimes you need to remember what your ancestors taught you. This is especially true if you live in a place like Toksook Bay, Alaska where the total population is less than 1000. Alaska’s natives are divided into 11 distinct groups. Those in the southwest are called by their native language: Yup’ik
To the Yup’ik, basketball is more than a game. Sometimes it’s therapy because suicide is a problem in the rural areas. As they mature, many young people become confused about their own identity and are filled with despair. This can be traced all the way back to when Christian denominations started arriving to Alaska. They told the villagers that their dances and customs were evil and that they should no longer engage in them. They even told them to stop speaking their native language. As a result, kids grow up with a deep sense of loss and disconnection from their roots.
About 70 years ago, a Jesuit priest brought basketball to the village. The people didn’t know much about the rules or how to dribble, but even so, they developed a strong love for the sport. Basketball is what brings life to the small town and unites the Yup’ik people.
And so it comes as no surprise that a young man by the name of Byron, who was only 16 years old at the time, willingly left his tiny village and traveled with his team for hundreds of miles across the frozen tundra to make his community proud by competing in a basketball tournament. The winners of this tournament would go on to compete in the state finals in Anchorage.
People took planes, snowmobiles, and even walked to get to the court. Many elderly stood among the crowd and cheered for their teams. It was a beautiful display of Yup’ik people of all ages as entire communities came together to enjoy the game they love.
According to Byron, there are two main reasons why a person plays basketball. One reason is because he or she loves it and the second reason is because he or she is trying to forget something.
Byron loves the game, but he can’t help thinking about his father who left them without a word.
Find out more about this beautiful story in this ESPN 30 for 30 Short Documentary.