An Interview with Della Waghiyi:

Yup'ik Missionary & Grandma

By Dianne O’Connell


 "I come from Kingeekuk's family -- we were a large family -- ten children," Della Waghiyi, 69, explained from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, in an interview conducted February 2, 1998. 

Kingeekuk's family lived in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, off the northwest coast of the Alaska mainland, not too far from Siberia. The village shares the island with the village of Gambell. "Kingeekuk was my dad," Della further explained, "but two of my brothers, myself, and two of my uncle Theodore Gologregen's kids, were raised by my grandparents. That is often a custom in Yupik families."

And also, as often is the case, the large extended families of a small community are quite inter-related.

"Albert Kaloowi, the first Yupik commissioner to Presbytery was my Sunday school teacher -- and my mother's brother," Della says lovingly, pointing to the man in the photograph. Tim Gologergen, Theodore's son, is currently a lay preacher with the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry. 

It was Della's grandmother, however, who first instilled the faith in the young girl. "I learned from her not only Christianity," Della says today, "but our way of life. I remember my grandma memorizing Bible verses in Yupik, like Matthew 4:4 (Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'") 

"Her name was Akaa. I never could understand her English name," the woman smiles. "We spent most of our time out at camp with our grandparents when we were growing up."

Della was baptized into the Presbyterian Church in September of 1940. She was one of the original group baptized by the Rev. John E. Youel of Fairbanks during ceremonies officially establishing the congregation at Savoonga. Youel was representing the Yukon Presbytery for the occasion. Teaching and organizing and other preparations for the event were made by Ann Bannon, the lady missionary who had been working on the island for some time. 

The church was organized but not yet built, Della recalls. She has photographs of the actual construction a few years later. It was the Rev. Parker who helped build the church.

Della's memory is long -- of the missionaries and ministers serving the village, she remembers the Campbells, Ann Bannon, Anna Martin, Louise Avery, Elmer Parker, Art French, the Rev. Youel, and, of course, Alice Green.

 Elmer Parker married John and I in 1948," she smiles.

John Waghiyi worked for the federal government in the postal service. He and Della became the parents of six children, three girls and three boys. The youngest, Ernest, actually was born to John's brother and his wife, but was given to John and Della to raise in infancy -- another Yupik custom. The family now includes 15 grandchildren and one great grandson. 

While still in Savoonga, John and Della became involved in the "Mariners", a church group for young married couples. As part of the group, they participated in a radio project started in 1960 by the Covenant Church in Nome. The church had established a radio station and broadcasted prayer, singing and Scripture. The "Mariners" sent in tapes for the program, called "The Eskimo Hour." The Islanders could then listen to themselves on the radio from Nome. 

When the older Waghiyi children reached the age to attend high school, they had to go to Nome. There was no high school on St. Lawrence Island. 

"We all decided to move to Nome so that we could be close to the children," Della explains today. "The girls and I moved in October or November, 1967. My husband was able to transfer from Savoonga to Nome with the postal service as a clerk. We had always been Presbyterians, of course, but there was no Presbyterian Church in Nome. So we joined the Methodist Church. We got involved with that radio station again and decided to give the message every day in our own Yupik tongue. The program was called ‘The Daily Light’ and John and I took turns giving the message."

John's job eventually took the family to Nenana, where he spent the last four of his 33 years with the postal service. The family returned to Nome.

The retired postal worker became a lay pastor with the Methodist Church -- and began serving the church at Wales. He was well received. While attending a conference on Native ministry in Anchorage, he met a man from the Moravian Seminary in Bethel and became intrigued with the Yupik preparation for ministry program there. John, Della, and their youngest child moved to Bethel, where John was accepted into the four-year program. After the first semester, the director asked if Della would like to enroll, as well.

"I was a seventh grade dropout," Della recalls. "I didn't want to decide right away. But I could see that John was finding it interesting and I finally decided to go, too. Oh, it was interesting." 

John Waghiyi graduated from the seminary, and his wife graduated the following year. John received permission from the Methodists to be ordained as a pastor by the Moravians, his wife says proudly. 

"He was about to realize his dream -- to bring to the indigenous Yupik people the Gospel in their own tongue," she says.


The Moravian Church provided the first $35,000 for a new ministry to the Yup'ik Eskimo of Siberia. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Covenant, and Lutheran churches soon joined in.

"When the first Friendship Flight from Russia arrived in Nome, my husband was there to meet the Russian Yup’iks," Della says proudly. "Our first Christian witness was when we said grace before we ate with them -- thanking God and asking a blessing for our food." 

After the first visit, John Waghiyi and others "went across" several times before being able to secure permission from the Soviet government to bring the Gospel to the Siberian Yup'ik people. 

"John and I visited together and were hosted by this elderly man in his home. He had been to Nome before on the Friendship flight. When we were about to eat, he told us 'Do however you do in your home.' That meant we could say grace and we did," recalls Della. "Our second witness." 

As John and Della talked about their faith with the people, one of the first reactions was -- "We often hear this radio station from Nome broadcasting in our own language. Even your voices are familiar. Are you in that group?," Della laughs. "We were the voices." 

"The faith is His," Della adds. "We are just His instruments." 

The Siberian Yup'ik communities that Della saw while in Russia were reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s in Alaska -- very little development, she says.

"We always bring groceries when we go to do ministry," she says, "so they don't have to feed us -- we feed them. It's a good thing we have the same menu -- eat the same foods," she laughs.

In addition to food, the Alaskans always try to bring medical supplies for the hospital at Providenia. 

With this approach, the ministry, officially called the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry, has taken root and flourished. 

"When I went there three years ago, we organized a Vacation Bible School first, then a Sunday school," Della says today. "But we have really limited materials in the Russian language, and we need things like crayons and coloring booklets for the children."

Three Siberian Yup'ik students are currently studying in Alaska for the special ministry, which is a joy to Della. The sadness is that two of the ministry team have passed away this year -- Howard Slwooko and Locmela from Russia.

John Waghiyi died in 1994. 

"I couldn't afford to stay in Nome in my little house," Della says. "I talked to my kids and we decided I should move to Anchorage. Only my youngest son moved with me, Ernest. He is carving in Haines right now. Two of my daughters live in Anchorage with their families and a couple of my boys live in Savoonga with their families. I would like to be able to spend summers in Savoonga, I think, if I could figure out housing." 

In her "retirement", Della is working on a book of stories and Savoonga history for her grandchildren.

"I learned many things from my grandmother than I want to pass on to my grandchildren," she says.

The grandmother has been going through photographs and reflecting on her heritage and her faith as it has developed over the years. She is a committed Christian and a committed member of her Yup'ik culture.

"When the missionaries first came there was talk about hellfire and what happens if you don't convert to Christianity. The people were scared and I don't blame them. They even quit Eskimo dancing because they thought it was evil. 

"My grandma used to have a little carved idol, from ivory. And my mom's mom used to have a larger one outside her house. I guess all those things were burned," Della says. "The original belief, or religion of my people was thought to be very different from the Gospel, but I don't think so anymore," she says today. 

After learning about Christianity, a Russian Yup'ik woman recently said, 'My grandmother always talked to someone, and now I know His name.' Della believes much the same way.

"My people, us Yup'ik, believed in God. We didn't mention His name except when we were in great need or in great danger. That was our way of showing respect.

"God's name was Apa, or grandpa/ great grandfather.

"When we wanted to pray, we must not pray in our home, but out where it is quiet and where we can be alone. Again, this was to show respect," she says. "When Apa sent the snow, we'd say 'He is providing the mattress for the little ones,' but we wouldn't say his name. 

"When we see someone mistreat their children, we'll warn that Mother God will take them away -- but we try to do this with some sensitivity and understanding of what is happening in their lives," the grandmother says. "Our stories about the beginning of the world are similar, too. I believe that Jesus fulfilled our law, our beliefs, when He came to Earth." 

Della is a remarkable woman -- a woman bridging two cultures, two expressions of faith in God, and two world political powers. She has been a part of a great missionary effort to bring Christianity to the Siberian Yupik speaking peoples of Russia while working to retain her own Yupik traditions and lifestyle for her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. It's the task of a deeply spiritual, intelligent and sensitive woman. 

And this child of God and child of Kingeekuk has been, and is, up to the task.

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