Historic church service connects Gwich'in to their language

SPECIAL SERVICE... Ruth Welsh (Tagish), Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce (Old Crow), and Anna Lee Furlong (Aklavik) at Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse. Rev. Dr. Bruce presided at a special Gwich'in service at the Cathedral on November 26.

On a bright winter Sunday in late November, Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse was the scene of a historic Holy Communion service.

With Gwich'in-speaking lay readers, servers, choir members, and ministers participating, the entire service was conducted in Gwich'in and officiated by Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce of Old Crow together with Rev. Hannah Alexie of Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

Facing an altar frontispiece of beaded white caribou that was given as a gift by the people of Old Crow many years ago, a congregation of over 100 native and non-native people participated in the hymns, prayers, and responses, following an order of service printed in modern Gwich'in, traditional Gwich'in, and English.

The service was the culmination of a four-day Gwich'in language and liturgy training session at the Yukon Native Language Centre, and was sponsored by the Anglican-Episcopal Institute of Northern Ministries and the Council of Yukon First Nations along with YNLC.

Participants at the session practised modern Gwich'in versions of the service, using listening exercises and reading practice, as well as the traditional texts written in an older form known as Tukudh, developed over 100 years ago.

The Gwich'in are enormously proud of their liturgical tradition, unique among Yukon native languages, which grew out of work carried out in the 1860s and 1870s by the Rev. Robert McDonald, a Church of England missionary and later archdeacon.

McDonald developed the Tukudh alphabet to enable people to read Christian texts, working in close collaboration with various Gwich'in speakers in Fort Yukon, Alaska, and later in the Peel River area of the NWT.

Over a period of forty years, McDonald and his translators, including his native wife, Julia Kutug McDonald, translated the entire Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

They also produced a Gwich'in hymnal containing nearly 200 hymns, a catechism book, and a book of Bible history and family prayers.

This long history of worship means that a traditional church service using the Tukudh texts is a deeply spiritual experience for the Gwich'in, bringing back memories of services long ago.

Like all the participants at the training session, Ruth Welsh was excited about the opportunity to play an active role in the church service.

"I will be reading the Epistle in Gwich'in," she said, explaining that she was busy practising. "It's faltering, it's jerky, but I'm getting it. I haven't read in our language for so many years, but it will come back."

Welsh, who now lives in Tagish, is originally from Ft. McPherson, N.W.T., and last attended Gwich'in services almost fifty years ago when she was a nurse in Aklavik.

"So I'm very excited about this one on Sunday," she said.

She especially remembered the Christmas services in Gwich'in during her childhood, when "the young women and men would go out and get boughs and put them around the stained glass windows and the altar."

In those days before electricity, she explained, there were candles on the altar and gas lamps, pumped up with air by the church warden during the services, throughout the church.

"I remember walking into the church, there were two barrel stoves, and you could feel the heat and hear the fire crackling and hear the gas lamps hissing, and the smell of the boughs was just out of this world," said Welsh.

The service was also a powerful experience for Bruce, who regularly officiates at mixed Gwich'in and English services in Old Crow.

Bruce, who is now almost 90, grew up within the Gwich'in liturgical tradition and is the only ordained Gwich'in priest in Canada.

Her grandfather, John Kay, was himself taught by Archdeacon McDonald to read the Bible and sing hymns, and was sent out to camps in the bush to teach others.

Bruce was just 14 when the first English-speaking minister came to Old Crow in 1925, before which all the services were conducted in Gwich'in by the native people themselves.

Both the training session and the church service were significant spiritual and cultural experiences for the participants, explained Welsh on behalf of Bruce.

"She thinks that, for a lot of the young people who are learning to read in the language and then taking part in the service, (the experience) may make them think about how they're living and maybe change a little bit," said Welsh.

Last August Bruce officiated at another communion service at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks, also conducted entirely in Gwich'in and attended by Gwich'in people from throughout Alaska, Yukon, and the NWT.

As in Whitehorse, participants in the Fairbanks service prepared for the service by studying the texts and practising the hymns during an intensive two-week training session.

"I was so proud of being Gwich'in," said Randall Kendi of Old Crow, who participated in both the Whitehorse and Fairbanks services.

"I stood beside the bishops and ministers at the services, and I was so proud to see Rev. Ellen Bruce from my community there presiding at the altar."

Kendi is a member of the younger generation of Gwich'in speakers who face a particular challenge in reading the traditional Tukudh texts.

That's because the spoken language today is quite different from the one recorded by Archdeacon McDonald, and because the younger generation uses a modern writing system developed in the mid-1970s that reflects the sounds of the language more accurately.

John Ritter, director of the Yukon Native Language Centre and one of the instructors at the training session, explained the challenges of retranscribing the Tukudh communion service into the modern alphabet.

"It means taking the service apart and really thinking about what the translators started with in English," he said.

"The students and Elders spent a lot of time examining the Gwich'in terms for 'covenant', 'testament', 'prophet', 'judge', and many other concepts. Many of these are long and not always easy to pronounce for younger people."

Ritter noted that the original translation was a tremendous job, involving much thought and ingenuity to render religious concepts in a way that made sense to the Gwich'in in their own language.

"In both workshops, the Elders insisted that the main focus be on re-casting the traditional communion service in a way that retains its essence but makes it understandable and usable by younger speakers."

Joy Wickett, a lay minister at Christ Church Cathedral, explained that even for non-speakers of Gwich'in, the communion service was a powerful experience.

"It was wonderful to hear familiar prayers said in a language other than English," said Wickett.

"It enhanced the feeling and the camaraderie and the fellowship of this place where we all came together."

Both the service and the training session were dedicated to the memory of Deacon Effie Linklater, who died at her home in Old Crow the Friday before the service.

"Even though we were sad that we had lost Effie, it was a celebration of her life and her work," explained Wickett.

"Being there, being a part of history, seeing people's faces alight -- it was a very moving experience.

"It made me remember that long before there was a Dawson or a gold rush or a Whitehorse, long before there was an Anglican diocese, there were people worshipping in this language in the north."

"I've been away from my home for many many years and it's through programs like this that I remember my language quite well," explained Ruth Welsh.

"And I'm about the most grateful person on earth because of something like this that's available to me at my age."