Following General Assembly action, regional group starts to make amends for past wrongs
December 16, 2016
Healing has begun between Native Alaskan groups and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) following an apology issued by the Presbytery of Yukon at the meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) October 22, 2016. Both native representatives and the presbytery acknowledge this significant gesture is the start of a long process to address the abuses of the past century, especially as they relate to the treatment of Native Alaskan children at church-affiliated boarding schools.two overtures passed by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this summer. The first was a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery [11-17], which asserted Native peoples did not have sovereignty over their land and gave western colonizers the right of dominion. The second was an explicit call for entities of the PC(USA) to make direct apologies for its role in personal and cultural abuses against Native American groups [11-08]. The Presbytery of Yukon was the first body to formally issue such an apology.
“The overall feeling from the Alaska Federation of Natives was, ‘Wow, this is great,’” says Roy Nageak, Sr., a Native Alaskan assembly member of the North Slope Borough and Ruling Elder at Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow, which was established in 1898 and is the largest Native-majority church in Alaska. “This has never been done before for the Alaskan people who are more remote and, like me, were sent to boarding schools under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Though Nageak’s uncle was willing to pay his tuition and expenses to attend the Presbyterian-founded Sheldon Jackson School, he wanted to stay with his friends. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent us all the way to a place near Salem, Oregon, called Chemawa Indian School.” His older siblings did attend Sheldon Jackson High School and College and became Presbyterian ministers after studying at Dubuque Seminary.
Perhaps no Alaskan missionary is as well-known as Sheldon Jackson. The Princeton Seminary-educated Presbyterian minister had established churches in Colorado before arriving in Alaska in 1877. His complicated relationship with Native Alaskans included a dogged insistence on preserving Eskimo culture and artifacts, and going to great lengths to ensure the economic livelihood of Native Alaskans as seal and whale populations disappeared due to over harvesting.
Yet Jackson also prohibited the use of Native languages in schools he established; forbade Native religious ceremonies around birth, marriage and death; and even cut down totem poles, believing them to be objects of worship rather than visual histories.
Among Native Alaskans, Jackson is simultaneously lauded and vilified.
For Native Alaskans, no memory of this westernizing and colonizing period is as vivid, or as painful, as the establishment of Native boarding schools. Again, in the complex history of the relationship between missionaries and Native Alaskans, many children in remote villages would not have been educated without the founding of these schools. But the abuses endured by some children at these schools and the damage inflicted by the separation of families will long be remembered.
“Most of the people alive now were not in the boarding schools run by the Presbyterian Church,” says the Rev. Curt Karns, executive presbyter in the Presbytery of Yukon, who delivered the apology to the AFN meeting. “But it was the Presbyterians who first insisted that English be the only language. It was the Presbyterians who first exhibited the mindset that has done so much shaming of Native Alaskans. And it’s that shaming that contributes to generational trauma or historic trauma, and that’s the healing that we are now beginning to understand.”
The apology is essential, Karns says, to help those who have internalized this generational trauma that is exhibited in some Native Alaskan communities in high rates of violence, substance abuse and suicide. “Part of the process is to validate that what they are feeling is real, and the apology is an essential part of this healing,” he says. “The gospel of Jesus Christ is always about healing whatever has been broken by sin, and that’s why confession and repentance on our part are so important.”
Karns recalls that after his delivery of the apology, many representatives at the gathering came to him in tears, thanking him for what the Presbyterians have done in Alaska. “But I’ve also had people who are really angry about the hurt,” he says.
“This also turns out to be a healing for the Presbyterian Church and for the greater society,” Karns says of listening to and reckoning with the expressed anger. “The air of superiority we were showing through that ethnocentric mindset also makes us less than adequate bearers of the gospel. Our own sin makes us less than we ought to be as full human beings under God.”
While no imminent plans are under way to conduct a Truth and Reconciliation process as was done in Canada between First Nations groups, the government and churches, Karns says he has had discussions with ecumenical partners to see what role they can play in the process the AFN is exploring.
Ida Olemaun, ruling elder at Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow and an Arctic Slope Regional Corporation board member, remembers—through tears and sighs—the effect the boarding school system had on Native family systems, especially very young children.
“There were these kids, about six or seven years old, attending elementary school— forced to leave the bonding of their families,” she says of what she witnessed as a teenager at boarding school. “They were stripped from their families and shipped down to Wrangell [Institute Boarding School]. At the time I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had on my grandparents and parents, who said to me that I’d changed.”
Despite her difficult memories of family bonds being broken, she says, “I would not be educated if I hadn’t gone. I would not have the skills of western society that allowed me to move forward. We gained a lot of leaders from our area to run the corporations and Native villages.
“From that perspective it’s good that we got an education and are able to lead our people,” she says. “Maybe for the last 40 years or so, the Presbyterians helped us reestablish our language. In Barrow, everyone went to the Presbyterian Church … it was a firm foundation. When I was young we had a Native lay pastor who taught us all these things and we were able to speak our language when we went to church.”
Olemaun also credits Presbyterians for the formation of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which received its seed money from the Self-Development of People program of the PC(USA) in 1971. It is now the largest locally owned and operated business in Alaska, with 12,000 Iñupiat Eskimo shareholders overseeing 10,000 employees engaged in energy production and resource development.
“[The grant] gave us a head start in establishing a Native business, so we’re thankful for these things,” she says, while acknowledging the pain still present among Native Alaskans as they work to rebuild their cultural heritage and family systems. “There needs to be some follow-through on what action we need to take to further heal within our community, as people of the Alaskan tribes.”
Gregg Brekke, Reporter, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Presbytery of Yukon
Let us join in prayer for:
Presbytery of Yukon Staff
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Lord God, help us find your leading in all that we think, say, or do so that we might always walk the path that you have set before us. Amen.