The blanket toss: From traditional binoculars to high-flying sport
Originally published on September 6, 2019.
Imagine a human-powered trampoline with two dozen people pulling a seal hide tight, while a person stands in the centre. That person is then thrown 20 feet into the air.
That's the blanket toss — or nalukataq as its known in northern communities — and it's a common practice for celebration in the northern parts of the Northwest Territories and Alaska.
But, the first time Reggie Joule tried the blanket toss, he was shaken up.
Joule stood on the seal hide and was thrown 20 feet into the air — but instead of landing back on the hide, he drifted in the air and was about to hit the ground.
Then, he was caught by someone in the crowd he didn't know. After he thanked the man, he walked away — but, unbeknownst to him, he walked right back onto the seal hide.
"The men, the pullers, immediately lifted the skin back up and threw me again," Joule said.
"I think that experience, walking back on it, even though accidentally, unintentionally cured my fear."
Joule, who is also a retired Inupiat politician, said the blanket toss was first used as a way for Inupiat to see for miles down the horizon while hunting. It took a lot of people to see a little ways, and it was retired once they figured out a better way to look for game.
"I think people quit using the blanket toss for looking off in the distance once the binoculars were introduced," Joule said.
Today, the blanket toss is used for celebration and competition. Joule's accidental walk on to the hide spurred an award-winning career at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, and he was even on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1973 to talk about it.
Joule was invited back 10 years later by Carson, even though the cohort from the World Eskimo Indian Olympics gave Carson an oosik, or a whale's penis, as a keepsake from their time in 1973 as a joke.
Joule remembered Carson dropping the oosik upon learning what it was, but afterwards being very gracious.
The World Eskimo Indian Olympics brought Joule to the southern parts of the U.S. for the first time and gave him a chance to see other parts of the world — and he's not done yet.
The 67-year-old jumped back on the skin this summer.
"I've gained a little weight and I had to find a way to energize the guys because I'm a little heavier than I should be," Joule said. After teasing them, saying there was no way he could do a backflip with their energy, he started to feel it.
"I felt that energy — sure enough, I got at least enough height to pull off a backflip and land on my feet and keep my balance."
The blanket toss has been a huge part of Joule's life, and he said it represents many Inupiat values.
"If you were to take quite literally the saying, 'it takes a community to raise a child,' and apply it to the blanket toss, that's it," he said.
"While we may get to a certain point of progression … the back story is there's a lot of people along the way that helped to make all of that happen.
"I think that, to me, is the biggest takeaway and I think that applies to just about anything we do."