Kaktovik Presbyterian Church Barter Island
Kaktovik is located about 300 miles from Barrow and has a population of approximately 150 people. It is currently the DEW line headquarters and supplies all the DEW line sites. Kaktovik Presbyterian Church at Barter Island was officially organized February 27, 1966. It had been a mission of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church at Barrow from October 15, 1889 to January 1951. They received pastoral care from Barrow but had never had an "ordained" minister of their own.
Andrew Akootchook, a lay preacher trained by Dr. Henry W. Griest, itinerate along the Arctic coast from Barrow to Demarcation Point, conducting services for scattered families. Dr. Griest also trained Dr. Roy Ahmaogak. The Rev. Fred Klerekoper assisted with this ministry from Barrow between 1936 and 1945.
Diary of Fred G. Klerekoper, Dogsled Trip from Barrow to Demarcation Point, 1936-1945. Published by the North Slope Borough Commission on History and Culture, June 1977.
Klerekoper writes in April of 1937:
"We finally arrived at Barter Island."
Klerekoper meets Tom Gordon; Andrew Akootchook; Mildred Keaton, a nurse; and Daugherty, the schoolteacher from Barrow and reindeer advisor. Klerekoper is there for a meeting of the church session. He observes:
"Here is a woman living with a man as common law wife, not exactly their fault. It is 400 miles plus to the nearest licensed commissioner and preacher over the tough trail we have just traversed.
We come to Andrew Akootchook's home. There is a polar bear cub in the house. To enter this place, you go through a low snow entrance into a snow hallway. Many entrances lead from it. Here are kayaks, pieces of sheet iron, and room for dogs. Inside are ten children and a polar bear cub. Andrew has just been elected president of the reindeer company. He is the father of 13 children. Behind the house is a cemetery.
Takpuk and his wife.
April 28, 1937:
“Arrive at Takpuk's. Their whole camp is out to meet us. Takpuk has lost his wife last fall but has the assurance that she is in heaven. It is his greatest comfort in sorrow. On the North Star, are Germans who said Eskimos receive nothing from religion and that missionaries are wasting their time. He should hear Takpuk. We have a service and to me the spiritual strength of the Eskimo is evident. He lives closer to his Creator then at least one German I know -- There is something contagious about the calm, large personality of Takpuk.” (Takpuk was The Rev. Roy Ahmaogak's maternal grandfather.)
The beginnings of the Kaktovik Presbyterian congregation dates back to 1941. In that year, Andrew Akootchook, a lay preacher trained by Dr. Henry W. Griest of Barrow, made his home at Barter Island and conducted worship services in his home. The Charlie Gordon family also participated.
(Andrew kept a diary concerning his ministry from 1920-1951, which was lost for several years following his death. It was later located and forwarded to the United Presbyterian Church USA Historical Society in Philadelphia. The editor wishes the diary was among our Presbytery records here in Alaska, but apparently it is safe.)
A letter written in 1950 revealed that of the 43 Eskimos then living on Barter Island per se, 29 or 31 of them were Andrew Akootchook's own family. He was recommended for special ordination to carry on this ministry. However, before the ordination could take place, he was accidentally killed.
Following Andrew's death, worship continued in the Akootchook home from 1951 through 1953, under the lay leadership of Herman Rexford. From 1953 through 1956, the congregation met in the village school, which also doubled as the home of Harold Kaveolook. From 1956 through 1965, the congregation met in a quonset hut.
Groundbreaking for the present church structure occurred in 1963, and the people begin worshipping in the unfinished building in October of 1964. In April of 1965, Presbytery began procedures to organize the chapels at Barter Island and Anaktuvuk Pass as official churches.
The Barter Island congregation organized February 27, 1966 with 45 charter members. All 45 joined by transfer of letter from Barrow’s Utkeagvik United Presbyterian Church. The new church was called Kaktovik United Presbyterian Church of Barter Island.
Elders in 1966 were Harold Kaveolook acting clerk; Herman S. Rexford, acting chairman; and Perry Akootchook, elder.
In 1968, the records show that the church was attempting to get a deed to the church property, which was made more difficult by the fact that the village was unincorporated. In 1984, the records show that a part of the church property was dedicated for a road and road right away to the new school and teacher housing.
Andrew Akootchook served as an elder at Kaktovik until he was licensed to preach the gospel by Presbytery in 1934. Upon the recommendation of Reverends Koschmann, Jackman, and Armstrong, Akootchook was suggested for ordination to the Presbytery ministry in 1950. But shortly before his ordination, Akootchook was accidentally shot and killed while hunting seal in January of 1951.
"Muktuk" Marston, who organized the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II, was in Barter Island when Andrew died and wrote,
Andrew Akootchook...the chief man of Barter Island, (was) a believer in the law and Christianity. I spent a good part of a week with him while organizing the ATG. I broke my leg in pressure ice with a dog team, and Andrew was killed the next morning in an accident on the ice ...I hobbled up to the grave with a crutch. He was buried in six feet of blue ice, and will be there a thousand years from now -- just as good as the day we put him in. He was a great leader and is missed by the people of Barter Island. (Muktuk Marston, Men of the Tundra, New York: October House, Inc., 1969, pp.40-41.)
Rusty Heurlin wrote a tribute to Andrew Akootchook following his death:
Andrew Akootchook is gone ...Big Andrew, the Eskimo lay-minister of windy Barter Island. Warm tears have fallen in the silent igloos. The entire Arctic Slope mourns his sudden and tragic departure. He was a good man -- honest, thoughtful and sincere, humble and sacrificing.
Andrew's strong, sun-darkened features, patterned against the Arctic white, showed the strength of generations before him -- the hardiest of all primitives. Stolid in appearance yet gentle within, he lived by the Golden Rule. "Our people were always good people," he said, "but we are thankful for the great wisdom and goodness of others." Then out came the worn Bible he cherished -- tucked snugly beneath his left arm.
He leaned slightly forward when standing. Nature had caused this from facing a lifetime of stiff Arctic winds. During the span of his sixty odd years he had crawled out of his semi-primitive darkness to see the light of a new era for his people. He learned to read and write the English language; how to build boats, better sledges and homes with high doorways. He tutored his children; taught them to honor and obey the Ten Commandments. Seriously he delved into his religion to hold Bible classes for the islanders every night. He leaned ever forward -- toward his great desire -- that of being ordained. It was to have taken place on Easter.
Andrew had seen much happiness in his life, then came the evil day ... and troublesome happenings beset him with deep worry over the future existence of his people. "It was the only trouble we have ever had in our long living at Barter Island," said he while here but a few days ago. Strict game laws had been imposed upon him and his people. "Our aboriginal rights have been taken away from us," he sighed. "But maybe some day the warden will see things our way for hunger knows no law in the Arctic."
Andrew faced all issues confronting his people. His clear thinking and fair judgment was law east of Barrow. Strongly fortified in his beliefs he lived as he preached, never seeking to escape any duty or sacrifice before him. With keen vision he saw the many needs of the Eskimos -- schools, good teachers and better, all around facilities for living. "We do not want to be looked down on. We want to be respected. We are honest people that want to go ahead. Our children must know more than we know when they get to be our age. That is progress."
From Barter to Barrow, from Wainwright to Point Hope -- all knew Andrew Akootchook. As the winds moan over the white immensity of his domain, his broken trail will not be obliterated. It is there for someone else to follow --clearly blazed with a Cross.