Early Work on St. Lawrence Island

From left to right: Jimmie Toolie, Herbert Kiyuklook, Fred Okoomealingok, Frank Seppilu, Edward Gologergen, Albert Kulowiyi, Ann Bannon, Theodore Gologergen, Alfred Tumbloo, and Nick Wongittillin, all of Savoonga.


Some 180 years after our fictional Unesquak discovered Vitus Bering’s ship along the horizon between St. Lawrence Island and Siberia, a real life Unesquak was to experience the forces of Christianity on this remote island located in what today is called the Bering Sea.

St. Lawrence Island is located about 120 miles west of Nome and 40 miles east of the nearest Siberian peninsula. There are two villages on the Island, Gambell and Savoonga. Gambell is on the extreme northwest corner of the Island, while Savoonga is midway down the north shore. Both villages are populated by Siberian Yupik Eskimos. In 1958, there were 345 people in Gambell and 300 in Savoonga.

"Some time in the early nineties (1890s), a two-mast schooner brought the material to the shore of St. Lawrence Island to build the first frame house which was to be the school and dwelling for the first missionary," writes Rev. Elmer F. Parker, in 1948.

The material was tied in bundles and pulled to shore with long ropes, then carried piece by piece to the site of the building. No one on the Island knew anything about carpentry work in that they had never seen a house built of lumber. The carpenter brought tools to work with but only enough for himself. The Eskimo made hammers from the lower jawbone of the walrus; thus most of the nails were driven with walrus jawbone hammers.

“The mission was completed that summer, the door locked and the key given to one of the chief men. They were very proud of the building but no one seemed to know what it was to be used for. Two or three years later a cutter stopped and Mr. and Mrs. Vene Gambell came ashore to spend five years with people who could not understand them. They came to teach the Siberian Yupik Eskimos to read and write and the way of life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The courage that dwelt in the hearts of these pioneers of the North is something to be admired,” Parker wrote.

Christian work on St. Lawrence Island began about 1887 when the Episcopal Church of America first built a mission church at a site called Chibuchack or Sivuqaq, Sevuokok, later renamed Gambell. No missionary could be found to take up the work.

Sheldon Jackson acquired the building in 1890 and approached the Gambells.

Having been recruited from his post at Wapello, Iowa, the Rev. Mr. Gambell and his wife Nellie proceeded to St. Lawrence Island under the auspices of the education effort of the federal government. While Gambell was hired as a public schoolteacher, he also had to assure the Rev. Jackson of the soundness of his Christian faith. The Gambells arrived on the island in August of 1894, just before the onset of winter.

Some of their early encounters were frightening. Shamanistic reaction to their arrival on the island was almost immediate:

"...but the dogs were nothing to the shamans, or sorcerers. That night three of them kindled a ring of fires on the beach, and held a seance. As I walked past the place and saw the 'doctors' lying on the ground within the ring, muttering incantations, a hunter, named Koogak, came after me and good-naturedly warned me, by signs, not to look at the fire lest the 'spirits' should enter my body." (Women's Board of Home Missions, Schoolhouse Farthest West, 1910.)

Heidi Gamble in 1998 asks if the above account really indicates "opposition" on the part of the shamans to the missionaries.

"I am told here that anyone looking at a shaman while the shaman is working, will cause the shaman to lose power," she explains. Perhaps, the men truly just wished not to be disturbed.

It does appear that as the community and the Gambells got to know one another, relations were friendly. For instance, Rev. Gambell built a house for Patrick Womkon's father. This frame house was the first to be used by an Eskimo family and was still standing in 1948. by this time Patrick Womkon was an elder of the church.

The Gambell's daughter Margaret was born in April of 1897 in the village. In November of that year, the Gambells went to the States where Mrs. Gambell was hospitalized all winter. In April 1898, when the Gambells were returning to the Island, their boat, the Lady Jane Gray, sank off Cape Flattery and the three were drowned along with forty other passengers.

In the summer of 1898, Vene Gambell's brother, Dr. Francis Gambell, government physician in Alaska, visited the Island with Dr. Jackson. They told the people of the death of the three Gambells and asked if they would like to change the name of the village to "Gambell" in memory of the missionary-teachers and their infant daughter. The people said they would, and the name was changed.

We continue with observations from the Rev. Parker's account:

“The next year Mr. William F. Doty came and it was through him the Eskimo learned of Thanksgiving Day. Dr. P. J. Lerrigo followed Mr. Doty.

"During Dr. Lerrigo's term, many people died in a measles epidemic. He left in 1901 and Dr. E.O. Campbell began his long work of nine years. He built a two-room hospital and made a number of improvements in the village. He established the Native store and the Building and Loan Fund. The reindeer herd was well established during his work on the island.

“Probably the greatest of all the missionaries to come to the Island was Miss Ann Bannon, the praying nurse. Nearly the entire population of the Island accepted Christ Jesus and His way of life through her ministry. The two churches, at Gambell and Savoonga, are strong organizations and are in a large degree responsible for the life of the two villages.

“Many changes have come to the village over the period of half a century. One of the greatest changes is in the living conditions. There is not one old type Eskimo house in either village (1949). The dwellings are well made lumber houses, well insulated and most of them are painted. Some still use the one room living quarters and sleep on the floor, but some have adopted the modern bed, table and chairs, stoves, cupboards and dishes,” Parker reported.

“The younger folks are changing their ideas about the living and following of the old customs. A few have had church weddings and wish to establish a home in the modern way. Modern education brings all the wants of modern times. They want a house of their own, furniture, radios, jewelry, cameras, fine suits and beautiful dresses. They want dishes, tables, chairs, inner spring mattresses, carpets and all that goes to make a modern home.

“Some want a higher education than is possible to acquire here on the Island. Some have taken correspondence courses. There are now two girls (Adlinda Womkon and another) who are attending Sheldon Jackson Junior College in Sitka. Several more are now working toward that end in their schoolwork....

Under the present regime, the Government has full supervision of the schooling, oversight of the Native store and the medical work. This is a good set up and well managed, but there is a need of a small hospital and a well trained Native nurse. It would be a wonderful place for a young doctor to begin his practice. There are nearly 600 people in the two villages and every one of them needs medical attention some time throughout the year. Besides this, some need constant medical care. All surgery cases are sent to the hospital on the mainland and this is a real problem...”

In 1935, Ann Bannon, “the praying nurse,” was aboard the Coast Guard cutter leaving Wales. When the ship stopped at St. Lawrence Island, Bannon went ashore while the Coast Guard was doing its business.

The Eskimos were curious about Ann and asked who she might be. After learning she was a missionary woman, they became very excited and made it known to her that they had been praying earnestly for a missionary to come to them.

Ann removed her belongings from the boat and began her work there. There had been long periods of time when no Christian leaders had given service there but the Presbytery minutes reported that two local women on the Island continued to keep the faith and helped to revitalize the church. It was not always easy.

Women of Savoonga, back row from left to right, Ramola Tumbloo, Ann Bannon, Myrtle Booshu, Hazel Siiuvaghaq, Miriam Kulowiyi, Bernice Penayah, Albert Kulowiyi; front row, marrie Punogwiyi, Aqaa, Hallie Alowa, Bessie Nuraela, Yari Tungatu, Molly Waghiyi.


In one report to presbytery, Bannon recalls an incident involving a predecessor, the Rev. Doty:

"At that time when an old man, who was sick or unable to work, became discouraged he would ask his friends or relatives to take him out toward the mountain back of the village with a long pole and rope and hang him. One day when Mr. Doty was walking he came up to such a group and asked what was going on. The men told him and he tried his best to persuade all of them it was a great wrong. No one should take a human life that God had given. After a while, the man called for a gun and shot himself."

Doty stayed one year. He patiently taught the way of Christ, wrote Bannon, as the first missionaries had done. But he was grieved many times because the Natives were keeping on with their old superstitions and heathenism.

Dr. Lerrigo was the next worker. He did good work as a physician, teacher, and Bible teacher, according to Bannon. "One of our present elders used to smile when he was reminded of Dr. Lerrigo,” she reported, "he used to serve us tea when we attended Bible Class," the elder said.

Dr. and Mrs. Campbell came next. The doctor taught the Natives many things beside school. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and taught Bible in school and out. He was a good carpenter and the older men, who were his boys in school, often recall, "Dr. Campbell taught me to do carpenter work." Two of these good carpenters also knew a good bit about medical work as a result of the teachings of this medical missionary, Bannon adds.

Sheldon Jackson sent some reindeer to the Island and Dr. Campbell taught the older youth to herd them. There is a record of Mrs. Campbell baking sixteen loaves of bread several times a week. The doctor, so the Natives said, learned to speak Eskimo very well and completed a book for them with the first pages like a primer, showing the Alaskan animals of the Island. Each was given the English name as well as Eskimo. The rest of the booklet was devoted to Bible verses for the Natives to memorize.

Whalers brought cotton cloth to the village for trade but had neglected to bring thread, so the women had sewn the cloth into parka covers, using their homemade sinew thread. The Campbells were strong believers in cleanliness, and every Saturday they insisted on the boys at the mission washing their clothes. The first time they washed their parkas they boiled them, and when Mrs. Campbell thought they had boiled long enough, the boys were amazed to see the different colored sleeves, hoods and bodies of their fine parkas floating around all loose, in the boiler. They had a great time fishing out the sections and when they were dry Dr. Campbell sent the boys home to have the others sew the parkas together again -- this time using our kind of thread instead of the sinew, which melted in the boiling water. This turning of the tables (on Mrs. Campbell), they found very amusing.

During Dr. Campbell's time at Gambell an old and sick man decided to commit suicide. Campbell heard of it somehow and went to the man and tried to help him understand how terrible this would be. After some time, the man consented to be taken back where he had been staying. Dr. Campbell did everything he could for the man and in a few days, he died a natural death.

“I do not know when this custom of suicide was given up, but it was sometime before I went to the Island,” Bannon adds.

The Presbyterian Church in Gambell was officially organized on August 30 and Sept. 1, 1940, by the Rev. John E. Youel of Fairbanks, representing the Presbytery of the Yukon. The Savoonga congregation was organized on Sept. 3 and 4, 1940.

A total of 140 persons were instructed in the Christian faith and on their confession of faith were received as charter members of the Gambell Presbyterian Church. At that time all these adults, with their children, received Christian baptism, administered by Pastor Youel, assisted by Miss Bannon.

Twenty-three more members were received in the following year on their confession of faith and Christian baptism. At one point the membership of the Gambell congregation stood at 228. The Savoonga congregation had a membership of 239.

Percy Ipalook of Barrow and Miss Anna Martin spent a brief time on the island after Ann Bannon left, and in 1945, yet another woman missionary followed Ann and Anna.

Alice Green Arrives in Savoonga

In 1945 Alice Green began her work at Savoonga. The first Sunday service she held was in the attic of the schoolhouse. Alice served until 1954. She returned to Savoonga again in 1972 after the Presbytery of Yukon officially ordained her to the clergy. She retired from the "active" pastorate in 1982. Her story can be found later in these pages.

The “Real” Unesquak Told of in Gambell

A resident of Gambell, Lawrence Kulukhon, recounted the story of his life as a Christian in 1967. It is preserved in a thermofaxed document in the UAF archives. As one reads the account, it becomes clear that the people themselves were the core organizers and sustainers of the Church on St. Lawrence. So-called trained missionaries were nice to have, but certainly not necessary for the spread of the Gospel among the Yup’ik Eskimo.

The story begins in 1901 with the arrival of missionary Vene Gambell who stayed in the village for ten years, Kulukhon says. During that time, a medicine man from the Southwest Cape visited the village. His name was James Unesquak. Caught between two spiritual world views, Unesquak couldn’t make up his mind about this Christianity. His internal spiritual struggle, perhaps, cost him his life.

As Kulukhon tells the story:

“Very strong spirit in him -- I think evil spirits. He always sing at night to call devil to have power to do things -- magic tricks. He use power to talk evil spirits out of person who sick. My father medicine man too, but make me to go toward church. Unesquak tell James Inungaiu call people together. He tell them about following Christian way. When he begin talk big star seen in West. After go home no more star. (White people thought was comet.)

“Right away he put away medicine and know and believe that Jesus. All Southwest Cape people become Christians....

“The night of meeting when I was home, knock came at door. It was Unesquak -- crying, very much crying. Father did not want to see anyone, but say if something to say, come for little time. Unesquak say, "I'm now wrong way. I think I mistake. Can you teach me how can I do?" Father say, "You cannot backward again to me. You already repent other way. You become Christian. You cannot hear me what I say anymore. Go your way! Go out! You got already changed mind." He go out.

“Next day he go back by dog team to Southwest Cape. Many days hear nothing about him. After that we hear Unesquak already die... “

Moses Sunarhok found the man, we are told, dead, frozen and being eaten by his own dogs. Kulukhon speculated that Unesquak had shot himself that day. Kulukhon’s story continues with the healing of his son’s blindness.

“... when we come back from camp in that summer, my son become blind -- no see. No more dark when I see his eyes. I don't like see medicine man. The "what shall be do?" I think better way -- call together praying for son. I try to find a man who was Christian. So I call Paul Silook. "Can you repent Christian way?" I ask him. He answered me, "Yes, I will." (His father was Christian.) "Can you come with me pray for my son? Myself, I repent, I become Christian. You wait here in my house; I go get James Anungaiu. I ask him again, "Can you come with me tonight?" "What?" James answer me. "Can you with me pray for my son. I repent." He smiled to me. "I will! I follow now." Then three of us together. We pray for my son."

And sometime later the child’s sight returned. The three Christian friends continued their prayer work together:

“We start praying and singing and reading the Bible in my house; three of us. Then I ask Paul and James -- shall we ask some more man? him. How about Peter Okinello? We go to him – his house. Then he follow us. Now four of us. Still we like ask somebody. Philip Campbell -- I thought Peter, Paul and James pretty hard to believe so I ask them first – but right away he answer "I follow you." Then five of us. That way we start.”

The men continued their evangelism, reading the Bible, talking with friends, and praying for a missionary....

“Then we are growing. Still we go house to house, singing, studying Bible and praying. More come in. We get more more, then we praying, trying to get missionary someplace. Also same time we try to open that old church ... Yes, we keep growing, growing. And not long we got woman missionary -- Miss Ann Bannon. Still we go house to house with this woman. Just on Sunday we go in that schoolhouse. She was first missionary; then after that many more." Same way, we praying "We look missionary. We need missionary." These people after that Rev. Parker, then Dr. Baker Campbell, Mr. Doty, Rev. Campbell, Rev. Art French, Rev. Alwin.

Elmer E. Parker

Letter Written July 15, 1947:

by the Rev. Elmer E. Parker

Dear Victor (Alfsen):

Your card received last week. From all the disadvantages that confront one in Alaska -- I wonder that anything done is really "legal." Hope you could carry the program through and am glad to have Roy with us. It means more to the Natives if one of their own number tells the "story." I wish Mr. Jackman could see the need of such here on this Island.

…Now about the Arctic Presbytery. It would be a grand thing -- but – we are on an Island -- Barrow is farther away from us than New York. Sometimes contact can be made to and from the Island in reasonable time, but much of the time a trip like that would require a long time. For example -- the Adventist Missionaries have been waiting in Nome for over six weeks to get here. They will probably arrive this week. You remember Mr. Jackman's experience. We have seen many such and know from these setbacks that it would be impossible to carry out a program like that. Then WHO would pay for the plane fares??? The hotel bills??? For the folks on the Mainland, I suppose it could be worked out, but we just can not make it.

We had a group of Siberian Eskimos (from Russia) here over the 4th and the following Sunday. Got them in for three services: prayer meeting, Sunday school and worship services. They had never attended a service of worship before -- were much impressed. They were much interested in the hymn singing and I had the choir give fifteen minutes of Gospel singing extra for them on Sunday. Some of them expressed the wish to have services like ours but that the Russians had taken away all Bibles and they could have only books and magazines that were issued by the government.

The report has just come in that the hospital boat is anchored here. Maybe I can get some help from a doctor on the boat. It’s awful slow this way. At the first the pain was so severe the muscle of my left leg atrophied and the leg is much smaller than the right. The left foot is quite helpless and numb but is improving. This accident is the first time I have been out of the harness for years, well, since I returned from Africa and that is twelve years.

Hope all is going well with you,

Sincerely, Elmer

Paul Silook Goes To General Assembly

Paul Silook of Gambell served as a commissioner to the 1948 General Assembly in Seattle. It was quite an ordeal to travel from St. Lawrence Island to Seattle and back -- and Silook recorded the story in a report to the Yukon Presbytery the following November. The full account in included in the appendices.

The trip began May 1, 1948 with a flight from Gambell to Nome, Silica’s first. Upon arrival, he gave thanks to God for his save arrival and began looking for a place to stay. Two different families with whom he had previously corresponded provided him suits of clothing for the trip -- neither one of which fit, but one could be altered.

Silook spent about two weeks in Nome. He attended both the “Native church” and the Nazarene Church. He was distressed about the amount of alcohol being consumed in the community and writes the Rev. N.H. Champlain in Fairbanks about getting to Fairbanks. On the morning of May 14, he caught a Wein Airline flight -- stopping along the way at Galena.

“... In my stay in Fairbanks the Lord showed me places that I have not seen before. First I went to their church and saw some people's weddings. “One day I went to the Alaska University where students were to graduate. It was quite interesting for me. During the part of the day a man whom I have seen before took me in his car and went to the miners, eleven miles from town. The man who took me around is Mr. Otto Wm. Geist. In a few days I was invited to a meeting at Notary Public where the council met. At the same time we have a dinner and Harry showed us his movie pictures.

“During my stay in Fairbanks I visited several places and have my first elevator ride in the hospital while visiting the patient, and went to the show only once. Harry's oldest took me to the show....

“After two weeks on the 24 of May we flew from Fairbanks to Seattle; on our way we stopped at Whitehorse for twenty minutes and took off again we stopped at Juneau for twenty minutes, and again flew from there to Ketchikan and stayed for another twenty minutes and to Seattle, arrive at 9 or 10 p.m. “We caught a taxi and rode to the town to find a place to lodge. I did not know that we have a place in Seattle. The place was a large house called the Olympic Hotel. There was crowded in the lobby where we spent some time to get into the room where we are to sleep in. The room was at the fourth floor that is very high.

“The next day we all the commissioners went to the First Presbyterian Church and get our papers. The day was pre assembly....

“From my boyhood I have not left home nor even stay overnight with my own relatives. It was a hard task for me. But leaving home so far away it was no worriness in my heart because I trust the Lord will let me go through this big meeting....

“One time I walked with two men both of whom were tall men, I was walking between them; Rev. V.I. Alfsen who is a tall man on my right hand and Rev. Armstrong on my left side; perhaps it looks as though I am a dwarf between these two tall men. When one talks to me I have to look up and talk to either of them while each bend down to talk to me.

While in Seattle, Silook met several people he had known from the Island, including missionaries, a trader, and teachers. He also toured the “sights” in the area:

“On Saturday we met for half a day and so we went to church for 110 miles off the town. On the way we stopped at dairy and at poultry where we see men milking cows and the work of machinery that hatches some eggs laid by the hens.

“On our way to church we stopped at the zoo where we see all kinds of animals, such as polar bears, lions, grizzly bears, kangaroos, monkeys and seals, there are some other kinds of animals beside them.

“One afternoon Harry and I went shopping to Sears, Roebuck & Co. where our people send for their supply, it was amazing to see such a sight of various things. We bought few things and went right back to our lodging. It was time to head home -- up the Alaska-Canadian Highway by automobile:

“The next day June the third, after breakfast we started our journey and stopped at Spokane to have our noon meal and went right on to the states Idaho, where we were held there for couple hours because of flood on the other side of the bridge. At 6:00 p.m. we continued our journey to a place where we get our papers and went on and stopped at a place near the Canadian border line. “(After several days travel) We passed several towns and came to Dawson Creek that is 1523 miles below Fairbanks. Still Rev. Evans is with us who had planned to be back at Ohio. There we saw Salvation Army going around with gospel messages. On our way back we passed several forest fires and came across some houses burning…

“We traveled for several hours and stopped at a place at 5 p.m. 600 miles south of Fairbanks. After supper we went to watch the ball game where the girls were playing. The place is called Whitehorse. We also went to see the riverboats...

“I stayed there (Fairbanks) for two days and flew to Nome which is some 250 miles off from Gambell, I would have stay with Harry longer if I have not heard of coming to Gambell. But when we get to Nome there was lots of ice.

“When I arrived to Nome I hunted for a job but it was in vain....

“After several weeks the freighter came then I got a job, first I worked in the boat for two days. I moved to the dock the third day because that I might miss the first transportation. I worked for two and a half days. “There were four men coming to the island to do some work. One of them came told me that the plane is going to bring me to the island. “Two days after we took off at 8:00 p.m. arrive Gambell around 10 p.m. and landed in the lake.

“The Lord had worked out wonderfully in His own way in bringing me through my long travel. The Lord has permitted me to see all the beauties before He calls me to His glories. I thank Him with all my heart. The Lord had permitted me to write out this report to be read to my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord. Only excuse my English.

Yours in Christ, Paul Silook

Just Who Followed Whom...?

Missionary/pastors and other observations over the years: