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Presbyterian History and Influence in Barrow, Alaska

December 21, 2016

 

 

It is always a bittersweet thought knowing my lineage and foundational ties that I have to the community of Barrow, Alaska. I am a fourth generation Brower and come from Teresa Anne Brower. My grandparents were Harry Brower, Sr. and Annie Hopson Brower. My great-grandparents were Charles D. Brower and Asiaŋŋataq. Charles D. Brower was one of the first white settlers in Barrow and came from Europe on a voyage to conduct commercial whaling in which he ran into the community of Barrow along the way and ended up marrying and bearing children there, building and managing a trading post, and later on being buried in the Brower Cemetery. I say it is bittersweet because I think back on the influences of the white people and the role they played in all of our North Slope communities, some being more horrific than others, but on the flip-side of things, I think about the fact that without him, I would not be here. My grandfather would not have learned all of the smart, efficient, and advanced things that he learned from his father and later on passed down to my mother and her siblings, my aunts and uncles, who then taught me. Although, my great-grandfather had an impact many years before the missionary and religious impacts, I am still a firm believer that he himself did more good for the community of Barrow and my family, more specifically. I don’t think he can essentially be pooled with “the rest of them.”

 

As a child, I was never attracted to the concept of religion and never really understood it. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t grow up with a heavy religious upbringing or if it was because of all of the negative influences I had learned about the churches in Barrow, Alaska, specifically the Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church. As a young adult, I had learned more in depth, the history about Alaskan Natives and how churches were life changing in many ways, both negatively and positively. The unfamiliar people appearing in a community who had subsisted for centuries prior, who thought they were superior to native people just because of the fact that they didn’t share the same skin color, facial features, language, or even dietary habits, tried to implement change because of these differences. These differences were the only deciding factor that made them better, superior, and on a mission to strip them of their language, culture and knowledge of our people. They identified a “problem” in which they tried to fix without doing their research about these people or even getting to know who they were; all they wanted was to make them English and Westernized. “The likely reason was the difference in substantive orientation and perception between Christians and traditional Iñupiat was…a serious obstacle of conversion. It was, indeed, a problem for the Presbyterians. Missionaries from this religion disparaged animist beliefs as superstitions…it was impossible for Iñupiat to become Christian without abandoning or even modifying their traditional world view.” (Pustola)

 

            What started this impactful moment in our people’s history was the influence of Sheldon Jackson. Sheldon Jackson made his way to Alaska in 1877 after establishing several other churches and missions throughout other parts of the United States. He was also a huge influence in the Bureau of Education in Alaska. In an article written by John Filiatreau about the Highlights of The History of Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church, Sheldon Jackson was “concerned about the hundreds of immortal souls in Alaska who have never so much as heard that there was a Savior…They are savages (who) have not had civilizing, educational or religious advances.” (Filiatreau) Jackson assigned missionaries of different religions to all regions of Alaska. Through my experiences and visits throughout the State, I always wondered why there were different religions more prominent by region. After learning about the reasons why that was true, it made complete sense. Jackson ensured that there were pastors, reverends, and missionaries disseminated throughout the State. Some of the regional influences consisted of Baptists taking over the Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island area, the Episcopalians covered the Yukon River as well as Canadian influences, Methodists took over the Aleutians, Moravians were assigned the Kuskokwim area, Congregationalists took Prince of Wales, and the Quakers got the Kotzebue area as well as a mining area near Juneau. It is said that St. Lawrence Island and the northern Arctic Coast were two regions that no one else wanted it in which the Presbyterians added it to their area. (Filitreau)

 

            Another influential name in the Presbyterian influence in Alaska was Samuel Hall Young. He was known as the “Father of Alaska Missions.” (Filitreau) Along with his mission work, he was also a writer and throughout his journeys he wrote several transcriptions. He was one of the people that I believe was not a positive influence in our history. He wrote letters to the Mission Board stating: “When I learned of the inadequacy of these languages to express Christian thought…that the task of making an English-speaking race of these natives was much easier than the task of making a civilized and Christian language out of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian; that we should let the old tongues with their superstition and sin die – the sooner the better – and replace these languages with that of Christian civilization and compel the natives in all our schools to talk English and English only.” (Filitreau) For this human-being, faithful in God, and a confirmed Christian to pass judgment on people and cultures he had known little to nothing about said a lot more about his humility and level of education.

 

The first Presbyterian influence in Barrow was in the late-1800’s when M. Leander Stevenson arrived as the first missionary. “Stevenson’s priorities apparently were teaching, medical care, and missionary work, in that order.” (Pustola) Through several years of trial and error, the inability to convert the Iñupiaq people, and limited resources, the Presbyteries finally made headway in conducting a church service. The first church service was held with a small group of less than 20 people on Easter Sunday in 1899. Before the church was built in Barrow, there were influences in the surrounding North Slope villages as well with the attempt to implement the religion and convert the people. In the 1920’s, the Presbyterian’s constructed the parsonage and manse with the help of the local native people. Throughout the start of the Presbyterian influence, they had many reverends come and go, some more positive and better than others, some completely against native people or society other than their own. In addition to the religious influences these white men and women played in the community of Barrow, they also influenced them in different ways, like building hospitals, fire stations, judicial courts, and more; again, another unfamiliar structure, format, and influence to the local people of Barrow. In 1921, the first hospital in Barrow was built by one of the Presbyterian pastors and his wife: Dr. Henry Greist and Mrs. Mollie Ward Greist. They saw the need of medical care because it was lacking in the daily lives of these Iñupiat people, but I believe without the introduction of new diseases and viruses from these people who migrated to Barrow, there would not have been nearly as many deaths from disease. In the early 1900’s, there were more than 200 people that died from influenza after the whaling ships arrived in Barrow. (Filitreau)   

Through the Presbyterian conversion and teachings in Barrow, they successfully trained several local people to become reverends. Some of those people included, but was not limited to Percy Ipalook, Andrew Akootchook, and more recently Reverend Mary Ann Warden, who now lives in Kaktovik, Alaska, and Reverend Roy Nageak who lives in Barrow still. Something that I found through my research about Reverend Mary Ann Warden really resonated in me in the sense that our people learned how to meld their cultural and spiritual beliefs with Christianity. Mary Ann was known for her basic principles of mission-in-reverse and the adaptation of culture and faith. She states in an excerpt from Indigenous Perspectives of North America: a Collection of Studies, “Our challenge today is to find ways to express our Christianity images, symbols, and stories that express our own cultural reality. Sometimes people try to separate me from my Christianity or from my Iñupiat heritage. I tell them I cannot be separated; I am both Christian and Iñupiat. I am an Iñupiat Christian.” (Sepsi, Nagy, Vassanyi, Kenyeres) 

 

It is remarkable to me, that centuries later, we still see and experience the impacts of religion and missionary influences. Although our people have persevered through these situations and turned them into positive, spiritual influences, the methods of introduction will never be forgotten. It taught our people how to read and write in English as well as in Iñupiaq. It also allowed our people to translate the Bible from English to Iñupiaq. These two things in themselves are moments in our history that we have been able to pass on to generations to come in the format of not only the positivity religion now plays in our daily lives, but advanced educational teachings as well.

Without the negative influences that impacted our history, we would not have been able to fight for our moral and human rights, our rights to our land and resources, our rights to life in general. Our people were sent to boarding schools to learn the western way of life; they came back and were able to live with the Iñupiaq culture ingrained in them, and much stronger people than could have ever been perceived. Although, we can generally get a sense of our future, we never know what will really happen. But, as much as people see religion, missionaries, boarding schools, and assimilation as negative impacts, I see them as both positive and negative. Our people took all of the knowledge in and used it to their advantage. We are one of the wealthiest regions in the state not only because of the resources we have been provided by the land, but because our people stood their ground and used everything they learned through these hardships to retain what was theirs to begin with: the land, the culture, and the language. And through all of that, I see nothing but growth; growth through the past, present and future. 

 

Today, I currently live in Barrow, Alaska, and see first-hand as a member of the Presbyterian Church, how it plays such a positive and vital role in the community now. For that church to have been built, maintained, and run for less than 100 years says that it is still a young thought and memory in the history of that community. I have conversations with some of my aunts and uncles about the church, and they tell me stories about how they remember my aaka (grandmother) dragging them to church as young children, bible in hand, to attend the service every Sunday. They tell me stories about how every holiday was spent at the church and how the entire church would be filled with community members who were there not only to celebrate God, but also to celebrate their hunting and cultural successes as a community. It brings me comfort knowing that regardless of the negative impacts missionaries and religion first played in our communities, there are positive thoughts and memories of the Presbyterian Church from its conception up until present day.

 

Follow-up: I wrote this paper this past summer for a course I had to complete as a degree requirement for my Bachelor’s Degree program at Alaska Pacific University. I am scheduled to complete my degree in May 2017 and am more than excited. Through all of my research, readings, and course assignments, I always try to focus on things that are most applicable to me. As I was writing this paper, I could feel the energy of our ancestors flowing through me, knowing that what I was reading and writing had a purpose. I had turned in my paper on a Saturday and attended church the next day for Sunday service. The following week, Pastor Reid, the current pastor for the Presbyterian Church in Barrow, attended the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS) Annual Meeting. I thought it was a little odd seeing him at the meeting, but once he got up to make his request to the people, I completely understood his purpose for being there. He had asked the people of the Arctic Slope region for their permission to allow the Presbytery to come to Barrow and apologize to the people for all the hurt, burdens, and negative impacts the church may have place on our people. I was quite shocked that this was happening just days after I had done my research and written my paper; I knew that the energy I was feeling while I was writing had meaning and purpose. I was very humbled by this request and was very thankful to see my elders around me accept it. In addition to this, I recently attended the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks, Alaska. I noticed on the agenda: “Presbyterian Church Apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.” I thought to myself, that they are genuinely trying to make a mend with all the people that suffered from the negative historical influences that came from their church. Some may say that it’s too late, but I say that it is better late than never. I truly believe that this will aide in the healing of our people from the historical trauma that lingers throughout their lives today. Through apology comes forgiveness; through forgiveness comes healing; through healing comes love.  

 

References

Filiatreau, John. Highlights of The History of Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church – part 1. Retrieved on July 26, 2016, from http://archive.wfn.org/1999/03/msg00179.html.

Kenyeres, J. & Nagy, J. & Sepsi, E. & Vassanyi, M. (2014).  Indigenous Perspectives of North America: A Collection of Studies. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Pustola, Colleen. Presbyterian. Retrieved on July 26, 2016, from http://alaskaweb.org/religion/presby.html.

 

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