Manokotak’s Shelby Nukwak-King on representing Bristol Bay at this year’s Arctic Winter Games

The International Arctic Winter Games were held last month in Wood Buffalo, Alberta, the first time the games have been held since 2018. Around 1,700 athletes from eight contingents across the circumpolar north came together to participate in sporting and cultural events.

One of those athletes was from Bristol Bay. Shelby Nukwak-King is a senior at Manokotak’s Nunaniq High School. She spoke to KDLG’s Izzy Ross about her time in the games, a week before her eighteenth birthday.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Izzy Ross: Happy Birthday! What better time than now to discuss something you did this year: you attended the Arctic Winter Games. And I would love to start from the beginning. When did you decide that this was something you wanted to do?

Shelby Nukwak-King: My volleyball coach, Gayle Andrew, showed me a link to the Arctic Winter Games site. And she told me that she should apply. So I applied and was accepted at the end of November.

Ross: For the listeners who may have heard of the Arctic Winter Games but aren’t quite sure what they are, what are they?

Nukwak-King: The Arctic Winter Games are different events. Everyone goes to one place, and there were six countries. I played volleyball. There were six teams and we finished second.

Ross: Congratulations on placing second in this tournament. How was the experience for you? Traveling to Canada and playing these games with a bunch of other countries, what was that like?

Nukwak-King: It was really exciting. But he was also nervous, because he didn’t know what to expect or how to feel. But he knew he was going to do well. I knew I would get along with other people. But it was always so crowded there, with all the athletes and all the sports directors. It was pretty fun. I have to get used to big crowds.

Ross: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a big change to go from a small community like Manokotak to this big tournament with, you know, thousands of people. We talked a bit earlier this week and you mentioned that it was your first time leaving Alaska.

Nukwak-King: Yeah, it was my first time leaving Alaska. And it was a big step for me. I was definitely excited to leave Alaska and see what it’s like. And that was definitely a great opportunity.

Ross: So it was the first time you left Alaska. As you mentioned, you were playing volleyball, everyone got second place in the tournament, which is pretty amazing. What was the biggest challenge for you during this competition and throughout this experience?

Nukwak-King: My teammates and I had one day a week to practice and get to know each other and how they played. And that was kind of overwhelming. I didn’t know who they were. But they all played against each other because they are 4A, 3A, 2A and I was just a 1A girl on the volleyball team. So I had to get used to how they were playing.

I didn’t play a match because I wanted to see how they play and see what I would be good at with them on the court so we could get to know each other and know who played what, who was good at what. that we would work together to win. And it was super stressful, but I did it.


Courtesy of Shelby Nukwak-King

Shelby Nukwak-King poses with her team at the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. The team placed second.

Ross: I’m really curious to know a little more about that. When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that you had decided to sit out one of the early games to see how the team played and see where you would fit in best. What did you learn by watching them? Were there any specific things you thought, ‘I want to play in that position’ or ‘This is how I’m going to change the way I play volleyball’?

Nukwak-King: So I was originally supposed to be a setter, but I didn’t know how his front row worked. So I asked my coach if I could stay out of the game and watch. And I watched how they played together and how one of the girls put them on. I told my coach that I’m better off being a full back so I ended up being the libero with another girl and that was fun.

Because all that pressure on me, I was setting myself up, I didn’t want to ruin the chances of us playing well, because this was our first time together. And throughout my high school years, I realized that I was better playing in the back row. And I told that to my coach and she was okay with it. And it really worked.

Ross: It seemed like a great time for you to leave Alaska, do something that made you nervous, and really expose yourself to this new experience. What was the biggest takeout for you?

Nukwak-King: I would say being the only person from Bristol Bay to go and compete in those games was really amazing. I tried looking for other people from Bristol Bay, but I was the only one. And I was surprised by that.

Ross: As the only person from the region, how did that change your approach to gaming? Did it affect you at all? Or were there things you took away from that?

Nukwak-King: It made me want to talk about our region and what we do here. Like we fish, we gather berries, all the other subsistence stuff we do. It was really cool, because people from different parts of Alaska didn’t really know what Bristol Bay was, what my town was called. And every time I told them where I was from, they said, ‘Where are you from?’ I was quite surprised, because I was able to tell them a lot about our region, my town and what I do.


Courtesy of Shelby Nukwak-King

Shelby Nukwak-King was one of the athletes who raised the Alaskan flag at the Arctic Winter Games.

Ross: I am very happy that Bristol Bay had you representing us. Is awesome. Thinking of applying to compete again? And would you recommend that other athletes in the region do so?

Nukwak-King: I’m definitely going to run again, but I’ll do it for the basketball games, because I know that would be super fun.

I definitely recommend other people from Bristol Bay to go, because everyone is strong and capable of doing it. And they are very good at sports. We are all competitive. And it would have a huge impact on other people if they wanted to go. I already had a few people ask me how it was and what they had to do to get accepted. And I would definitely recommend it to anyone willing to go. The next session will be in Wasilla.

Ross: And I heard that volleyball and basketball aren’t the only sports you play. It looks like you’re also going to compete in the Indigenous Youth Olympics this year.

Nukwak-King: Yeah.

Ross: What are your events there?

Nukwak-King: So I do Indian Stick Pull – I went to state for Indian Stick Pull last year. I just learned Alaskan last year, Eskimo Stick Pull, Scissor Broad, Seal Hop.

Ross: Having competed at the Arctic Winter Games, is your approach to NYO any different? Are you excited to do something where there will be more people from Bristol Bay? How do you feel?

Nukwak-King: I’m excited to do it again. I watched the Arctic Games in Canada, it’s basically NYO, they just called it something different, and everyone cheers for each other, even though they’re competing against each other. Everyone encourages each other, everyone gives them advice. I want to do that when I do NYO this year. I would like to encourage other people, give them advice if they need it. Because we all need help in some way, you know?

Ross: Absolutely. Shelby Nukwak-King, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for sharing part of her experience at the Arctic Winter Games. And good luck at NYO this year.

Nukwak-King: Thank you.

Contact the author at [email protected] or 907-842-2200.


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