At the Arctic Winter Games, it's about trading cultures -- and pins

Mar. 13—PALMER — Technically speaking, 11-year-old Wyatt Cyre traveled with his parents 1,200 miles from Whitehorse to Mat-Su last weekend to watch his older sisters compete this week for Team Yukon in the Arctic Winter Games, a sporting event that has drawn thousands of Alaskans and international visitors to Mat-Su this week.

But sports aren't really why he's here, he said.

He's here for the pins. And to get them, he talks to strangers.

"To smile — that is my strategy," said Wyatt, who is spending the week swapping the colorful metal pins with athletes, volunteers and officials he meets at venues around Mat-Su. "You can't just talk with them for one minute and say, 'Oh, I'll take this pin.' You have to trade with them for 20 minutes to get to know them."

The Arctic Winter Games are a weeklong Olympics-style event held every two years for youth athletes, with 20 sports including snowshoe races, Dene Games, badminton, hockey and more. More than 1,800 athletes from Alaska and seven regions of the circumpolar north compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in the shape of ulus. The Games were last held in Alaska in Fairbanks in 2014.

The lapel-style Games pins are created in a wide variety of shapes and colors by teams, government officials, local businesses and the Games' host committees. Athletes, spectators and volunteers carry pins on their hats, scarves or badge lanyards and swap selections with one another over the week.

While pin enthusiasts this week said collecting them is an obsession for some and its own form of sport for others, more than anything else, trading Games pins gives athletes and fans a way to connect with one another, they said.

[With streamers and fanfare, the Arctic Winter Games open in Mat-Su]

At the Palmer Depot on Monday, Wyatt made serious work of his pin collection, moving between crowds of teen athletes from the Northwest Territories and North Alberta as he eyeballed pins dangling from their lanyards. He said he was specifically on the hunt for a coveted set brought in by the small contingent of 45 Sapmi team members from Norway, Sweden and Finland. He planned to attend some sporting events over the week where he could meet some of the Sapmi athletes and make some trades, he said.

Creating the opportunity for conversation around trading is exactly why the pins are such an important part of the Games, said Janet Pacey, a renowned collector who flew into the Games this week from Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories. She helped Wyatt start his collection and pin hunt Monday by giving him a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. pin in exchange for a few pins from one of the regional teams.

What Wyatt may not know, she said, is that by trading pins with strangers, he's also learning to build global friendships.

"It's a way to engage with others, even if you don't speak the same language," she said.

A few miles away at Colony Middle School, a different kind of cultural exchange was happening Wednesday in the school's gym as athletes competed in the Alaska high kick Arctic sport event, planting one hand on the floor while kicking up one foot to touch a dangling sealskin kick ball.

[Photos: Competition underway in 2024 Arctic Winter Games]

To make it through the increasingly difficult rounds of Arctic sport and Dene Games events, individual athletes rely on help and coaching from one another, regardless of which nation's colors they're representing, officials there said.

Team Alaska athlete Malcolm Fuetta, who traveled to Mat-Su from Juneau to compete in Arctic sports, sat on the floor next to a North Alberta athlete to offer some tips during the Alaska high kick competition Wednesday. After showing the North Alberta athlete a different way to hold his foot, Fuetta moved back to the sidelines while the athlete completed his kick, successfully sending the ball bouncing into the air.

Fuetta said that kind of teamwork is what he likes about the Arctic sport events and the Arctic Winter Games.

"Everyone's sitting next to each other, giving everyone advice," he said. "You'll see people hit a height, and then you'll see people come in for big group hugs."

That's exactly the kind of cross-cultural friendship and respect that make these Games so special, said Adele Villa, a Native Youth Olympics official from Nikiski who is co-chairing the Arctic sport events this week as her son Staxx Van Kirk competes.

"For the athletes, to the coaches, to the officials, even all of our coordinators and volunteers, it teaches us how to work as a community," she said. "That is the biggest thing that is instilled."