The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska


1This paper is based partly on field work carried out in the study region since 1960, but primarily on published and archival sources. Contemporary information on all of the early missions in northern Alaska was obtained from Sheldon Jackson’s annual reports on education in Alaska, which are published in the Annual Reports of the [U.S.] Commissioner of Education. For early developments among the Congregationalists at Wales, I found The American Missionary to be very useful. Sources on the Friends mission at Kotzebue included Carrie Samms’ (1897-98, 1899-1900, 1900-01, 1901-02) unpublished journals, the Annual Reports of the California Yearly Meeting of Friends, Hadley’s (1969) published journal, transcripts of elders conferences in the NANA Elders Council (especially 1979) and the Northwest Arctic School District Collections (especially 1983a, 1983b), and Roberts’ (1978) history of the mission. Developments at Point Hope are recounted in the unpublished Mission School Record Book (Driggs et al. 1893-1911), The Spirit of Missions, The Alaskan Churchman, and in the histories by Stuck (1920) and Thomas (1967). For information on the early years at Barrow I relied on Dimmit’s (1948a, 1948b) histories and on material in the correspondence file at the Department of History, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In order that the paper not be cluttered with references, only those that are directly germane to a specific point are cited in the text. I thank Thomas Correll, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Nicholas Flanders, Igor Krupnik and James VanStone for comments on an earlier draft.

2A Roman Catholic church was established in Kotzebue in 1929 (Flanders 1991: 50-52). The church in Wales was acquired in succession by the Presbyterians, the Covenants, and the Lutherans (Almquist 1978: 30, 33 n.1, 34, Anderson and Eells 1935: 208, Heinrich 1963: 297). Otherwise, the principles of the comity agreement were generally adhered to in Arctic Alaska until the 1950s. Since then, practically every Christian denomination, and some non-Christian churches, have established bases there.

3In 1889 the Mission Covenant of Sweden turned over its Alaskan mission to the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, but the original Swedish missionaries continued in the field.

4I use "r" to spell Uyaraq’s name instead of the "g" used in Alaska because it is likely to be more familiar to most readers of this journal as the symbol of the sound involved.

5In 1894 a Lutheran missionary, Rev. Tollef Brevig, arrived at Teller to minister to the Saami who had been brought in to teach the local people how to handle reindeer, but his work soon expanded to include the Inupiat as well (Johnshoy 1944). His work is not discussed here since it had no apparent effect on the region north of Bering Strait until long after the period of present concern. It was not until 1930 that a Lutheran mission was established at Shishmaref (Lund 1967: 70a-72).

6The Samms began memorizing words from Kelly’s (Wells and Kelly 1890: 47) word list while en route to Alaska, and they worked hard at learning Inupiaq once they got there. When they went out on furlough five years later, "they were so accustomed to the use of the Eskimo language that they found it hard to speak in English" (Roberts 1978: 213).

7The first baptisms of Mackenzie Delta Inuit were performed by the Roman Catholic Father Peter Henry Grollier in 1860 (Morice 1910,I: 291-292, Peake 1966: 15). The Anglicans were not too far behind (Cody 1908: 107-125, 208, Gould 1917: 229, 233). However, these baptisms did not require conversion. It was not until 1904, when an Anglican mission was established at Herschel Island, that sustained missionary efforts in extreme northwestern Canada began (Gould 1917: 234, Peake 1966, Stone 1981, Whitaker 1937).

8In the 1970s the Quaker Historian Arthur 0. Roberts (1978: 115-123, 1981: 91-93) learned about Maniilaq while working on a history of the Friends mission. In his book, Roberts elevated him to the status of prophet in the true biblical sense. Unfortunately, his description of Maniilaq’s work is so exaggerated and full of errors as to cast doubt on his entire account.

9For my analysis of Inupiaq religion, I relied particularly on my own field data and the work of Stefansson (1913a, 1913b. 1914: 126-128, 202, 223, 267, 270, 1951: 390-435, 1953). Much of Stefansson’s relevant research was done in the Mackenzie Delta, but it was primarily among immigrants from Arctic Alaska. Also helpful were Rasmussen (in Ostermann and Holtved (eds.) 1952: 60-62, 128-131), Spencer (1959: 255-357), Rainey (1947: 270-278), Jenness (1953: 5-10), and Lee, Sampson, Tennant and Mendenhall (eds.) (1990: 3-7, 9, 11, 41, 131, 145), in that order.

10It could be argued, however, that saints, for many Roman Catholics, should be added to the list of Christian supernatural entities.

11In contrast to many Quaker yearly meetings, the California Yearly Meeting of Friends Church was clerical (LeShana 1969: 109, 119). However, it was by no means the equal of the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or the Congregationalists in this regard. Its minimally clerical orientation was retained by the Alaska Yearly Meeting of Friends Church when it separated from the California Yearly Meeting in 1970.

12It is important to reiterate that the focus here is entirely on the initial conversion period. Many changes in religious belief and practice have occurred in Arctic Alaska since 1910.

13Uyaraq’s perception of these matters is unknown, but must have been different from that of his White colleagues. I lack direct evidence on the understanding that Robert and Carrie Samms had of the situation. My impression is that their own world view was so similar to that of the Natives that they probably failed to recognize this phenomenon altogether. In this regard they contrasted sharply with even their own White contemporaries and successors in the Friends Church at Kotzebue.

14For example, in his account of the nonstandard Native-run Sunday afternoon service at the Episcopal Church in Point Hope, Rainey (1941: 175) gives a perfect description of the usual type of Friends service, at least as practiced in the Kotzebue Sound region. However, he erroneously attributed the form of the service to the "force of native tradition". VanStone (1962: 153) noted similar services in Point Hope fifteen years later, as I did in Point Hope, Kivalina and Kotzebue five years after that.

15"Syncretism" apparently has become a controversial notion in missionary circles (Schineller 1992). As an analytic concept, shorn of emotional or ethical content, I find it useful in understanding changes such as the ones described here.

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