Ben Snowball, icon of Alaska’s Native Youth Olympics, dies

Ben Snowball is presented with a lifetime achievement award during the opening ceremonies of the Native Youth Olympics earlier this year. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Ben Snowball, whose knowledge of Native sports and willingness to share it provided the backbone of Alaska’s Native Youth Olympics, died earlier this month of cancer.

Snowball, 76, was honored at last April’s NYO Games in Anchorage with the organization’s first lifetime achievement award.

Known also as a drum-maker and sculptor, Snowball for years served as the head official at the Native Youth Games, an annual event that for more than 40 years has brought high school students from all over Alaska to Anchorage for three days of competition in events like the seal hop, Eskimo stick pull and two-foot high kick.

A drum made by Yup‘ ik artist Ben Snowball.

“Every year he was always there,” said Nicole Johnston, the current head official for NYO. Even after he was no longer involved in an official capacity, she said, “he was still always there, watching or visiting.”

Born in Stebbins, Snowball attended Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka and graduated from Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to his obituary.

He was an encyclopedia when it came to Native games and traditions. His willingness to share his knowledge made him an NYO icon — a familiar face whose quiet demeanor belied enduring passion for his culture.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher,” said Noel Strick, a Wasilla Middle School teacher who has been involved in NYO as an athlete, coach and official. Several years ago, she and Snowball helped launch the Junior NYO program for kids in grade school.

“Every student that I have continued to coach and work with, it’s because I had such a great role model who shared so much knowledge of the games,” Strick said.

“… I’ve got my masters degree in educational leadership. He naturally had his.’’

Snowball was the go-to man at NYO for people curious about the history of games and for athletes searching for pointers. A former muktuk-eating champion at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, he once provided a succinct but comprehensive answer when asked about the key to success in that event.

“Good teeth and a good knife,” he said.

A memorial service for Snowball is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Anchorage. A potluck reception will follow.

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