I never dreamed I would be north of the Bering Straight… 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. That’s what I think as we fly along the coast of the Arctic Ocean and see colors I’ve never seen before. They are right, it is beautiful. I remember a question stated rhetorically, “How can you not believe in God when you see places like this?” They are right… our Creator is here.
I arrived in Kivalina, Alaska in 6 seater airplane and was immediately greeted by Belle. They threw my suitcase on hood of the four-wheeler and told me to jump on the back…so I did…holding on while she flew over bumps like they were nothing. She immediately took me to the McQueen School to find Lynette Wilson, an Episcopal reporter and colleague. Lynette is here with a film crew to tell the story of Kivalina, an Inupiat village struggling to survive while climate change erodes their small island. I am here to meet the people.
Everyone greets me with “Welcome to Kivalina” and smiles. This is something that makes me homesick for South Dakota, where people wave and smile, as you drive by them on the highway. I miss that about being rural areas. In Los Angeles, you’re lucky if someone allows you to merge into the interstate without a honk and don’t expect an “excuse me” at the grocery store either when you are cut off by a shopping cart. Here, people ask your name and children call it from a distance as they play.
I walked around the island and saw many homes resembling reservations homes “in the lower 48″. I feel comfortable and at home. It is 50 degrees outside and I intently open my eyes to truly see the village. As a Missioner, I am here to learn and to see how The Episcopal Church can help the people through resource development, grants or networking.
Nearly 400 Inupiat people live on the 1.9 square foot island. The people hunt the bowhead whale, hunt local animals like caribou, and pick berries in the summer. The people are all very busy now preparing for winter. Lynette and I walk to the cemetery which is next to airfield. This is somewhere I immediately wanted to see after flying over. It reminds me of my great-grandmother and the cemetery outside Allen, South Dakota at Inestimable Gift Episcopal Mission where my family is buried. All the crosses are wooden with a background of the lagoon and Brooks Mountains in the distance. You can tell people really loved those who entered larger life.
Later in the afternoon, I walk along the sea wall. I am reflecting on why I am there. Praying for guidance. I draw a heart in the sand, not something I usually do in the lower 48, then three Inupiat girls run up to me. They are sweet and friendly. The smallest one sings me a song. They take photos and run off to jump on their four-wheeler. Yes I think, they are why I’m here.
The sea wall has cost 16 million dollars to build to protect their community. Due to climate change, the 30 foot ice wall that usually forms in the fall now only forms to a fraction of its size. Their 1.9 mile island is now eroding away. The water storage where the people stored food for the winter is not staying as cold as in the past, their stored food often rots. Now remember, this is a community where all food has to be flown in at exorbitantly high prices. The majority of the people live below the poverty line, so even if they could afford food in the community store, most of it is processed junk food. Sadly, I did not see fresh fruit or vegetables being sold.
In the 1870s, missionaries began to flow into Alaska, and as in most cases in religious history, the missionaries forced the people to stop teaching traditional songs and dances to the youth. So I am surprised to come upon the community center where I hear drums and singing. I walk inside and see one young woman, 25-year-old Christina Swan, directing about dozen teenagers and youth, with another dozen watching.
It is amazing to see so many learning their traditional songs and dances.
They practice for two hours a day, seven days a week. I think the Smithsonian Magazine article is right, a youth renaissance is hitting the seventh generation (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/A-Youth-Renaissance-for-Native-Americans.html).
Christina tells me immediately that she had a dream a year ago that instructed her to teach songs and dances. She says she never thought it would be her because when she was young, she was wild. Christina now has a five-year old daughter who know all of the songs and dances. She tells me a year ago she paid, out of her own pocket, for two Kotzbue traditional singers and dancers to fly out to teach them. Her mother, Colleen Swan, tells me Christina was so determined and I can tell she is very proud of her daughter. Christina says some in the community doubted them, even worried that they might embarrass the village… but they learned over 30 songs and dances in two months and performed at a regional competition. She says this proudly with a huge smile on her face.
I tell her I believe in dreams.
When God calls you, he calls you immediately. Christina whole heartedly agrees with a I-can’t-believe-it-either shrug and wide grin. Again, I think… God is here.
Movie director Chris Eyre, in a Smithsonian article says, “There is calling not taught in religion, it’s in one’s heart.” I agree that the calling is in the heart, however today the Episcopal Church strives to teach the calling of the heart. The Episcopal Church officially calls this the very stuffy term of “Formation”; defined as: a life long process providing continuous and consistent formational education and experiences. The foundation of scripture, tradition, and reason weave together all generations through the telling of individual stories, the community story, and the great story.” My colleague, Ruth Ann Collins, Formation and Vocation Officer, says she wished years ago formation was titled “Transformation”. I agree with that too. Then people would understand it’s not about the church “forming” anyone. The Episcopal Church of today provides the resources and opportunities for one to learn how to individually transform their heart. To listen to their calling whatever it may be.
Christina is Episcopalian and a traditional Inupiat.