The Presbyterians & Native Alaskans: Their Language and Their Land
As with so many areas of Alaskan Presbyterian history, we must first start with the Rev. Sheldon Jackson -- the first American missionary to reach Alaska. He came on behalf of the Alaskan Native people, of whose plight he had learned at the General Assembly meeting in Chicago in 1877. He and Mrs. Amanda McFarland arrived in the territory by August of the same year.
"He (Jackson) hadn't been in the territory long before he was appointed United States Commissioner of Education for Alaska," according to the Straatmeyer materials. "Although a public official, he was, in another sense, still a minister of the Gospel. Another Early Presbyterian missionary, John Brady, was appointed governor of the territory. Together with Brady, Jackson became such a strong force in Alaska that at times the territory was accused of being run by the Presbyterian Church." (J. Arthur Lazuli, Alaskan Apostle, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers), 1960, p. 157.)
There was no doubt for whom the missionaries came -- at least in the minds of the white population. Jackson's purpose in recruiting missionaries -- from a wide variety of Christian denominations -- was to provide education for the Native children throughout the territory. He felt this was the only way "to help shield the Native within the cloak of an ordered white society."
Under Jackson's system, separate of church and state vanished in Alaska for a considerable period of time. Missionaries were paid from government educational funds to run their schools. While the goal of their teaching was to educate, it was also to evangelize... They (the white population) resented the amount of money which was being directed toward the education of the Natives. "White Alaskans were interested in preferred treatment, rather than relatively equal treatment." (Lazell, Alaskan Apostle, p. 198.)
The Yukon Presbytery was still fighting for public education for Native Alaskan children in 1975, this time in support of providing elementary schools in each village rather than sending youngsters to boarding schools or boarding homes in the cities.
The Rev. Gordon L. Corbett, Synod Associate Executive, introduced Frank Flavin, Alaska Legal Services, to speak on the Molly Hooch case during the March 1975 meeting of Presbytery. After his message, Presbytery voted to endorse the request of Alaska Legal Services to receive from the national church a grant of $7,000 from the Emergency Fund for Legal Aid, to further litigation in this case.
The Language Issue
Sometimes, we make mistakes, even amid otherwise pretty good work. S. Hall Young was recruited by Sheldon Jackson in the 1880s and more than any other Presbyterian missionary, influenced the decision to teach the Native people the English language. (S. Hall Young, Hall Young of Alaska, (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company), 1927, p. 69.)
In his biography, Young wrote: "One strong stand, which so far as I know I was the first to take, was the determination to do no translating into the Tlingit language or any other of the Native dialects of that region."
Young based his decision on what he believed to be the inadequacy of the Native dialects to express Christian thought as well as the fact "that the whites were coming" and the Native would need to speak the English language in order to survive.
Many would argue against this position today and it is important to note that the Presbyterian church encouraged and helped Eskimo pastor Roy Ahmaogak translate the New Testament into the Inupiaq (northern Eskimo) dialect as early as 1946.
But the language issue remains very much alive today as well-meaning people struggle to make the right decisions and to find the right words to express their thoughts on the subject.
During the March 1994 Presbytery meeting at Barrow, for instance, the Evangelism Committee moved that Yukon Presbytery recognize their part in the oppression of the Native languages, “but most importantly make amends to the Native communities through Christian love and public statements.” The motion passed.
The Rev. James Roghair of Barrow moved to approve this apology but to amend the statement by adding after the word oppression “of the indigenous people of Alaska,” and to refer the matter of appropriate response to a Task Force to meet with the Native people regarding the loss of language and culture. This motion also passed.
Elder Ronald Illingworth then moved that “in light of the announcement Thursday, March 10, 1994, by Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) that the “language bill” had received federal funding”, the Presbytery of the Yukon should express its support for the retention and return of the indigenous languages of Alaska peoples and refer this issue to appropriate committee to develop appropriate statements of support as well as suggested actions. A report was to be submitted at the next regularly scheduled meeting of Presbytery. The motion passed.
Moderator Kenneth Smith appointed a Task Force consisting of the Revs. Gene Straatmeyer, Nelson Ahvakana, and Jay OlsonKetchum, and Elder Molly Pederson to draft a statement concerning the Native Language issue and asked them to report back before the close of this Presbytery meeting.
The Task Force returned with the following statement:
An apology: "In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God's image, male and female, of every race of people, to live as one community. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to hear the voices of those long silenced and to work with others for justice freedom and peace." (A Brief Statement of Faith.)
Therefore, we, the Presbytery of Yukon apologize for the language and cultural oppression of the indigenous people of Alaska which we have allowed and perpetuated in the past and continued through the present.
We pray that our apology may lead to true repentance and a deeper life together in Christ, in ministry and friendship.
The motion was tabled!
The apology was finally voted upon and approved during the meeting of the Presbytery. Also at this meeting, the Native American Consulting Committee was formed. Linda Gologergen, James Nageak, and Ida Olemaun were elected to serve on the committee.
Rev. Nageak reported during the 1995 spring presbytery meeting that the committee was still identifying goals and objectives. He told of the successful pre-Presbytery Mission Consultation and of a Native American Reconciliation project to develop plans for youth, lay pastor training, and lay leadership training. The committee continues to work and was the impetus for a later Korean Consulting Committee.
All this echoed to some degree the passion of well-meaning people struggling with a similar issue in a different form ten years previously.
During the March 1988 meeting of Yukon Presbytery, It was moved by James McCurdy of the Social Concerns committee to send a letter of endorsement and thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Knott, the Synod of Washington-Alaska executive who had signed the Public Declaration Concerning the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the Indian and Eskimo Peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
This document, signed by a number of denominational leaders in the Northwest in an effort to apologize for many actions and beliefs that had been detrimental to Native American culture in the past, was highly controversial. The Rev. Nelson Ahvakana of Barrow asked for a Native Caucus before the vote.
The Rev. Richard Madden moved a substitute motion: “that the Presbytery of Yukon endorse and support, upholding the principles of the American Religious Freedom Act and the following affirmations listed in paragraph 2 of the Public Declaration signed by synod executive Elizabeth Knott in Seattle, Washington, dated November 21, 1987:
1. The rights of the Native peoples to practice and participate in traditional ceremonies and rituals with the same protection offered to all religions under the Constitution.
2. Access to and protection of sacred sites and public lands for ceremonial purposes.
3. The use of religious symbols (feathers, tobacco, sweetgrass, bones, etc.) for use in traditional ceremonies and rituals.
The Native Caucus then reported back. Ahvakana stated, “We feel that our faith in what we believe is important for culture values and we retain the belief that we have in Jesus Christ. We have a consensus to vote against the paper.”
Inupiat Elder Molly Pederson added that “Inupiats are different from the other Natives, and it is an insult to include us as a group.”
The Yup’ik Eskimos felt that their beliefs and cultures were also important but felt that they were against the paper, too.
Action on the Public Declaration was tabled until after lunch. It was later sent back to the Social Concerns Committee to have a “dialogical study with intercultural representation.”
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