Home is where his sport is

People | For Johnny Issaluk, Inuit games are more than just a sport, they are also a way for him to give the community he loves so much a good swift kick in the culture

Go kick ass, before I high-kick yours (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

Elías Thórsson

For centuries people from across the Arctic have met to test their agility, strength and endurance. Their games, in which competitors square off in events like the high kick and the knuckle hop, evolved as a way to keep strong and healthy in one of the harshest environments on earth. For them, the skills they honed were more than just for sport, they were a matter of survival.

Today the games are a celebration of the toughness and heritage of the Inuit, and one man has dedicated his life to become the embodiment of these traits.

Born in, Igluligaarjuk, a hamlet in Nunavut on Hudson Bay, Johnny Issaluk has in the quarter century he has been a competitive athlete established himself as the most successful in the business, and he has the medals to prove it.

“I was 16 when I started competing, first at the regional level, but then at 18 I started internationally,” he says. “My cousin was my coach, and I competed regularly for 20 years and won over 200 medals.”

SEE VIDEO: Johnny Issaluk, high kick, slo-mo (at end of article)

Issaluk, 40, now spends much of his time traveling and passing on his experience to youngsters and adults alike, as well as talking to crowds about his heritage and Inuit culture.

“I do a lot of presentations and demonstrations on how you win 200 medals, on the importance of hard work,” he says. “I do motivational speaking and I talk about my culture, about what the games present and why they are important, and why it is vital to keep the culture strong.”

As a child, Issaluk couldn’t get enough of sports. He competed in everything from football to ice hockey, but it was in the traditional Inuit sports that he found his calling. And ever since his first Inuit games competition, when he was a teenager, there has been no stopping his enthusiasm.

“It was great going to my first games, I really enjoyed the interaction and competing against others,” he says. “But even though it is very competitive the games are also very friendly, you coach each other and you learn from your elders and other athletes. It is like everything we do, we share everything. What we catch, we share, and we only catch what we need.”

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For Isaaluk, who in 2012 was awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal by the governor general of Canada for his contribution to the national health and well-being, Inuit games are more than sports. They are about people coming together, and it is especially the games that bring together people from across the Arctic that have a special place in his heart.

“It is amazing when people from different parts of the world come together, to share their passion and their techniques,” he says. “It is incredible competing against people who come from different countries, but are living just like you. It is very meaningful and fills you with pride, especially when you see young kids kicking ass, because they are working hard to get better. It shows that somebody, somewhere did something right.”

It is obvious that for Issaluk, community is more than just a word. And now that he has become somewhat of an elder statesman in the sporting world, he has taken on the role of unofficial ambassador for the culture and the community he holds so dear.

“I work for the government and my job requires me to be at the office all the time, but my boss understands where I come from, what I represent and that my culture is my life,” he says. “So I am always going to schools to demonstrate the games and pass on traditional knowledge. It is so important that we keep our heritage and our traditions like our language, throat singing, drum dancing and hunting alive and well.”

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Keeping with his dedication to his culture, last year Issaluk released the book Games of Survival: Traditional Inuit Games for Elementary Students, which teaches kids about Inuit games and the values and dedication associated with them.

“A friend of mine came up to me and asked if I could help write a book about the games, about the different aspects, about agility and strength. When he told me that it was aimed at young people I was more than willing. Everything that has to do with youth and our culture I am up for.”

And when he observes the next generation of Inuit he knows his culture is in good, able hands, and he is far from worried about his culture’s survival in a globalised world.

“If anything the culture is getting stronger,” he says. “It is the same with everything, the bigger the challenge, the greater the resilience. When the current gets stronger, the reward gets bigger, and if you can make it up the river, you’ll reap the benefits.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Rasmussen’s People articles are interviews or profiles of the individuals who shape – and are shaped by – the region.

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