Alaska Native villages struggling to preserve way of life offer warm welcome to Episcopal bishops

Bishops at the river

Episcopal bishops and residents of Venetie, Alaska, gather Sept. 23 at the bank of the Chandalar River to bless the water, land and people. Venetie was one of eight villages in Interior Alaska visited by different groups of bishops, who are attending the fall House of Bishops meeting in Fairbanks. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Fairbanks, Alaska] Sunrise in Fairbanks was 7:40 a.m. on Sept. 23, but Diocese of Alaska Bishop Mark Lattime had a nonnegotiable command for his fellow bishops: Don’t be late.

They weren’t. Beating the sun by 10 minutes, they boarded the bus for the airport at 7:30 a.m. sharp, bringing with them their rochets and chimeres, their boxes of food to give to the villagers they were to meet, and their personal expectations for what awaited them in Alaska’s northern Interior.

Bishop Prince Singh of the Diocese of Rochester in New York was in good spirits on the bus. Some of his thoughts turned to his previous missionary work in a poor region of southern India. His group of bishops was headed this day for Arctic Village, where families of Native Alaskans on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge still survive largely on hunting and fishing.

At the airport office of Northern Alaska Tour Company and Arctic Air, Bishop Greg Brewer of the Diocese of Central Florida took his turn as the bishops placed their travel bags on a scale to be weighed: a five-pound backpack here, a 10-pound duffel there.

Precise weight measurements are crucial in small planes like these, an experience that reminded Brewer of traveling about a decade ago on similar flights in Uganda when visiting a partner diocese. Now Brewer was one of six bishops flying to the village of Allakaket on Day 3 of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting.

An emphasis on creation care and racial justice at this fall’s House of Bishops meeting made Alaska the perfect laboratory, Lattime told Episcopal News Service earlier in the week. And in the Alaskan lab, the central catalyst for the bishops’ reactions was this day of travel, including eight trips to Interior villages. A ninth group drove to a former gold mining site, and other bishops remained in Fairbanks for a procession along the Chena River.

In the 2 p.m. hour, the bishops at all 10 locations were to bless the land, water and people. Episcopalians across the Alaska diocese had been asked to participate at the same time in their local congregations.

“The idea of having, all across the state of Alaska, this blessing at 2 o’clock is powerful,” Lattime had told the bishops a day earlier as they discussed ways environmental justice is interwoven with the plight of indigenous people, especially those suffering the effects of climate change.

But what can a delegation of bishops do for the residents of a struggling Alaska Native village? Lattime assured the bishops they bring gifts of faith.

“You are bishops of the church. You are the symbols of the unity of the church. You connect these people with your people,” Lattime said. “You have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and you bring the ability to connect people in prayer and offer your blessing.”

The bishops carried those words of encouragement with them to the airport the next morning. Bishop Mariann Budde of the Diocese of Washington studied a map of Alaska as she prepared to leave for Huslia. She said she hoped the bishops’ visit would be worthwhile for the village residents, and that she would be able to open herself fully to hearing their stories.

Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Diocese of Pittsburgh had packed a tangible offering: a bottle of water taken from the Conemaugh River, which flooded Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889. He planned to dump the water into the Yukon River as a symbol of recovery as his group offered blessings in Eagle, a village that suffered its own devastating flood in 2009.

The sun was now illuminating the edges of the gray clouds. Pilots flying into the Interior pay close attention to a condition they call “having weather.”

“We don’t really have weather in Venetie,” means the clouds have lifted enough to allow takeoff and landing there.

Guest services representative Katie Tasky stood on a bench and gave the bishops a final rundown of what to expect on the twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain planes, which had enough room for a pilot and nine passengers.

“Window and aisle seat, everyone gets one,” she said.

Another employee called for the first group of Episcopal travelers: “Arctic Village!” The bishops and spouses boarded their plane and were in the air by 9:05 a.m.

Pilot and bishop

Pilot Bill Thompson takes Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas’ bag before leaving on a flight to Venetie, Alaska, on Sept. 23. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Bill Thompson, the pilot for the group heading to Venetie, offered his co-pilot seat to any interested passenger. Retired Bishop Neff Powell of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia volunteered.

“Hop in and do that important preflight checklist for me,” Thompson joked.

With six bishops, two spouses and a reporter buckled in and wearing their headsets, Thompson maneuvered the plane behind the others in line at the start of the runway, an unusually busy day for Arctic Air. “You guys have certainly cleared out our ramp today,” Thompson said.

Two planes were ahead. Then one. At 9:40 a.m., with the Venetie flight cleared for takeoff, the plane buzzed down the runway and began soaring over Fairbanks, charting a path north.

‘A wonderful, wonderful way of life’

The bishops were welcomed warmly in Alaska even before boarding flights to the Interior. Elders and leaders of local Native organizations addressed the House of Bishops on Sept. 22 at sessions that focused on Native culture and environmental threats to a way of life that has been followed here for thousands of years.

Poldine Carlo

Poldine Carlo, a founder of the Fairbanks Native Association, shares stories of growing up in the Interior with bishops gathered in Fairbanks on Sept. 22. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

“We didn’t get rich, but we had a good life,” Poldine Carlo, 96, said as she detailed some of that life for the bishops at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Convention Center.

Carlo is best known as one of the founders of the Fairbanks Native Association, a support group created in the 1960s at a time when Alaska Natives faced open discrimination. But what resonated most with the bishops were her stories of living off the land in and around Nulato, where she grew up.

As she spoke of her tribe’s fish camp and of animal tracking with her family, there was an audible ache of nostalgia in her voice – knowing part of that way is forever gone, and what’s left of it also may disappear.

“It was such a wonderful, wonderful way of life,” Carlo said. “To think, at the time I was home, I never, ever thought there would be an end to that.”

Hunting, fishing and trapping continue in the Interior, but Native communities that pride themselves on their subsistence lifestyle find it increasingly difficult to provide for themselves in the old ways.

“Alaska is probably one of the last places on Earth where native people are still rooted to the land. We live off the fruits of the good Earth,” said the Rev. Shirley Lee, executive director of the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Housing First program and a priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks.

For every food there is a season, she said: from moose to caribou, fish to berries. “And when we move away from those seasonal practices and rely on the local grocery store,” Lee said, “it deadens our spirit.”

The changing environment is one factor in that cultural decline.

“Right now the changes we’re seeing in our climate, we have to address it. … It’s very noticeable up here,” Bernadette Demientieff of the conservationist Gwich’in Steering Committee told the bishops. “Our elders and our leaders are at a point where they’re taking it up on their own because no one else is listening.”

The Episcopal Church has long joined in that activism, and its Episcopal Public Policy Network has specifically supported the efforts of Demientieff and other Gwich’in activists in their fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from proposals to allow oil drilling there. The north coast of Alaska, part of which the refuge encompasses, is a major caribou birthing ground and considered sacred land by Alaska Natives who hunt the caribou when the herd migrates deeper into the Interior.

“This issue really is symbolic of how we are going to treat our remaining intact ecosystems on the planet,” Princess Johnson told the bishops. Johnson was part of an Episcopal Church delegation that traveled to Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and she is a leader in the grassroots group Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition.

“You cannot really separate environment from social justice issues. We really need to be mindful of that,” Johnson said. “I really honestly believe we’re all here on this planet for a reason right now and are being spiritually called upon to act.”

Shirley Lee

The Rev. Shirley Lee addresses the House of Bishops on Sept. 22 in Fairbanks. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The Alaska Natives thanked the bishops for traveling to Alaska and listening to their concerns. Lee asked the bishops, as they prepared to travel across the Interior, not to see that vast landscape as barren, undeveloped property.

“Look at that and remember there is a history behind every inch of land that you are traversing,” she said, “that history of the Native people here, and how your blessing will help further the preservation of our culture.”

Village welcomes visiting bishops

Thompson, the Arctic Air pilot on the flight to Venetie, was not at first fully aware of the nature of his cargo. Bishops on an Interior expedition were something novel.

Realizing his passengers were flying over unfamiliar terrain, Thompson, 47, gladly played the tour guide. A 26-year veteran of the Alaskan skies, he pointed out the Fort Knox gold mine, which still operates just north of Fairbanks. He described how the Tanana and Yukon rivers, carrying glacial silt, had created wide flood plains over thousands of years. He identified the snow-dusted peaks below as the White Mountains, a jagged range dwarfed to the south by the Alaska Range, its towering Denali hidden in the clouds this morning.

“We have the Fort Yukon weather,” Thompson radioed back to the control tower.

He began dropping the plane to 4,000 feet to fly below the thick layer of clouds hovering above that village. The Yukon River appeared below. The arbitrary dotted line of the Arctic Circle receded behind them. A moose was spotted wading in a marsh on the edge of a lake.

Venetie from above

The village of Venetie, Alaska, is seen from above. The dirt strip in the center of the village is the former runway. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

As they approached Venetie, Thompson circled the plane over the village and the Chandalar River so he could point out the old dirt runway in the center of the village and the large school building. About 200 people are estimated to live in Venetie, most of them in small log homes built on dirt and gravel roads stretching out from the village’s center.

Mildred and Eunice

Mildred Killbear, center left, and Eunice Williams greet the bishops after their landing in Venetie on Sept. 23. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

After landing on the gravel surface of the newer runway just before 11 a.m., Thompson taxied to the spot where a group of villagers in pickup trucks and on all-terrain vehicles were waiting to greet the bishops with a round of handshakes and hugs.

Mildred Killbear and Eunice Williams escorted the visitors to the center of the village, a few minutes away by pickup truck.

Killbear, 68, was born in Fort Yukon and lived in Arctic Village as a child before moving with her parents to Venetie. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said.

Williams, at 80, is one of 20 village elders whose pictures hang in a display case inside the school building. “We’re still living in the old cultural way. We still depend on the subsistence lifestyle,” she said.

Of the 20 elders honored in the display, she is among the few still alive.

Eunice and Margo

Eunice Williams and the Rev. Margo Simple show the bishops Venetie’s school. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

At the school, they met the Rev. Margo Simple, the Episcopal priest in Venetie who also works as a community health aide. Simple gave the bishops and spouses a tour of the building, as she and other village residents thanked them for coming.

“Pray for us and the land and the animals,” Williams said.

Myra Thumma was preparing a caribou meat feast for the bishops at Venetie’s community hall, a short walk from the school. The group made its way over to the small, one-room building, where residents greeted them with conversations about the hall’s wood-burning stove, about the villagers’ families and about the many ways of eating salmon, from burgers to salads. The bishops presented gifts of food – a large box filled with eggs, fruit, Nutri-Grain bars and other items that otherwise would command high prices at the village store.

“This is the first time we’ve had so many bishops in one building,” Eddie Frank said. He, too, thanked them for coming.

Frank, 67, is a formal tribal administrator who now works on the village’s roads. “We don’t call them roads, we call them trails,” he corrected. He also is known for his skills at trapping wolf, mink, lynx, marten, fox and any other animal popular for its skin and fur.

Milder, shorter winters have made trapping more difficult, Frank said. Dog sledding and other winter travel depend on adequate snow cover, and he thinks the animals are more easily scared away by humans’ scent in the warmer air.

“The weather has really changed,” Frank said.

Caribou feast

Myra Thumma points out the caribou meal that was prepared for the visiting bishops at the Venetie community hall. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Thumma also worries about the effects of climate change. It has affected caribou migration patterns, she said.

She attended college in the southeast Alaska city of Sitka, and she met her husband in Fairbanks, but eventually she had to get back to her home village.

“I can’t live in the city,” Thumma said. Venetie is “the only life I know. This is part of me.”

By 1:45 p.m., Simple had led the bishops to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church for the afternoon’s liturgy. A wood stove warmed the inside of the log church as a handful of villagers gathered in the pews for the short service.

Afterward, the bishops in their rochets and chimeres processed out the front door following a 9-year-old girl who held high a wooden cross. They made their way down to the river, a young boy sprinting ahead of them.

Under gray skies and the hazy afternoon sun, the bishops offered their blessings and thanks, for the river and land, for the moose and caribou, for the boats moored on the riverbank, for the village elders and leaders. They offered prayers for young people suffering from addiction, another threat to the village’s way of life.

When it was over, the visitors and their hosts gathered for group photos, a family of worshipers bound by faith.

To Nenana for a potlatch

A day later, members of that faith family filled the community hall in Nenana, Alaska, nearly to capacity.

Nenana is a village a 55-mile drive southwest of Fairbanks. The Episcopal Church was once the only Christian denomination with a presence in the Interior, and its history in Nenana dates to 1905 and the mission church of St. Mark’s.

On Sept. 24, after splitting up in the morning to attend Sunday worship services in Fairbanks, North Pole and Nenana, the bishops joined together again in Nenana to attend the afternoon potlatch prepared by the St. Mark’s congregation and the village’s Native community.

A potlatch is a Native Alaskan ceremonial meal featuring traditional food, drumming and dancing. This was a meal to leave no one hungry: moose meat, moose soup, garden salad, pasta salad, potato salad, fry bread, rolls, tea and dessert. Helping after helping was served up and down the long rows of bishops and residents who were seated in front of the makeshift paper tablecloth placed on the floor at their feet.

Potlatch

The bishops, their spouses and residents of the Nenana area prepare for a potlatch feast Sept. 24. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

As the dinner wound down, several bishops and Native leaders spoke to the crowd, expressing mutual gratitude for the experience of this “good-time” potlatch.

“I’m extremely blessed tonight to see the bishops in Alaska,” said Bessie Titus, a longtime Alaska deputy of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. It’s a great honor, she said, “to us as a diocese, to us as a Native community.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered Nenana the blessing of the Episcopal Church and received a roar of approval with his heartfelt “thank you,” which he repeated over and over.

Lattime called himself “probably the most blessed in this place” because his family of bishops was getting a chance to meet the family of Alaskans that has adopted him.

Trimble Gilbert

The Rev. Trimble Gilbert speaks at the Nenana potlatch. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

“This is what the love of Christ is all about,” he said. “This is what becoming the body of Christ is all about.”

The Rev. Trimble Gilbert, an Arctic Village priest and prominent Gwich’in community leader, echoed others in marveling at the hundreds of people who had gathered for the day’s potlatch.

“In Nenana, we honor you,” he said, before explaining that the potlatch represents his tribe’s values, its commitment to taking care of each other. Like the hunting traditions that provided moose for the meal, the potlatch follows the ways of their ancestors.

“We honor them for us to be here,” he said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Comments

  1. Rev Judy Hoover says:

    I know many bishops attended but would love to see a list of those who were there. Thank you for this fine article.

  2. Keith Gardner says:

    I’m moved with the love that was so present in the bishops visits.

  3. Richard Basta says:

    A good time was had by all.

  4. This was incredible time in Alaska. The trips to the villages ( Tom (VT) and I flew to Nenana) with about 8 others) we were warmly and sincerely welcomed. It was indeed a privilege to visit with the people.

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