Gwich'in service August 2003

LANGUAGE OF TRADITION...More than 100 Gwich'in speakers and other participants gathered at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks to hold a church service entirely in the Gwich'in language.

LANGUAGE OF TRADITION... More than 100 Gwich'in speakers and other participants gathered at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks to hold a church service entirely in the Gwich'in language.

In mid-August, more than 100 Gwich'in speakers and other participants gathered at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks to continue a special tradition—the holding of a church service entirely in the Gwich'in language. The service was the culmination of a two-week Institute devoted to Gwich'in language and liturgy held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and co-sponsored by the Yukon Native Language Centre, the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, and the Gwich'in Language Centre of Ft. McPherson, NWT.

Last held in Fairbanks in 2000, the Holy Communion service drew Gwich'in people from across the north to participate in a service led by Gwich'in ministers, deacons, and lay readers.

"I found the ceremony interesting because, although I'd participated before, I'd never undertaken conducting it," says the Rev. Mardow Solomon of Ft. Yukon, Alaska.

Previous services, which have alternated between the Anglican cathedral in Whitehorse and St. Matthew's in Fairbanks, have been led by the Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce of Old Crow, now in her nineties and the first native woman to become an ordained priest in the north.

Solomon officiated at the service along with the Rev. Deacon Percy Henry of Dawson City, the Rev. Deacon Bella Jean Savino of Fairbanks, and lay reader Joanne Snowshoe of Ft. McPherson, NWT.

Rev. Solomon has a lifetime of experience in the Gwich'in spiritual tradition as a lay reader and deacon for many years. In 2001, he became a priest, the first Alaskan Gwich'in to be ordained to this position in several decades.

Lay reader Joanne Snowshoe, who led many of the Gwich'in prayers during the service, has also been involved with both her Gwich'in language and its tradition of spirituality all her life.

"I was pretty comfortable with this service because we maintain it in my home community of Ft. McPherson," she says.

Father Scott Fisher, rector of St. Matthew's, has attended several of these Gwich'in services.

"I am always impressed by the depth and the strength and the holiness and the breadth of the occasion," he says.

Fisher points out that, far from being of interest only to the elders, the service attracts a cross-generational congregation that includes children and younger adults, as well as non-natives.

"People have been singing those songs and using those prayers for over 100 years, and you get a sense of all that history and all that tradition."

The Gwich'in take great pride in their liturgical heritage, which is unique among other Athabaskan languages of North America because it has a continuous written history dating back to the 1860s.

That's when a Church of England missionary named Robert McDonald began collaborating with Gwich'in speakers in Alaska and Canada to develop the early written version of Gwich'in known as Tukudh.

For Solomon, Snowshoe, and other Gwich'in, the opportunity to study the Tukudh Bible and other texts translated by McDonald and his native teachers provides a continuing link to their spiritual tradition.

Many of the older participants find the service particularly moving because they remember attending Gwich'in services with their parents and grandparents, many of whom learned to read and write using the McDonald texts.

Snowshoe remembers her mother singing hymns and still has her mother's traditional Gwich'in prayerbook.

"It has lots of marks in it, such as where you're supposed to be praying in the service and where you read the lessons," she says.

Although life was often hard then, she explains that prayer was part of her daily life as a child.

"Whatever was put in front of us we said grace over, and then we would all sit down and eat.

"And then in the evening, before we went to bed, my mother would pray with us."

In fact, says Snowshoe, spiritual practice was a part of life for entire Gwich'in communities, including regularly attending church.

"On Sunday morning whoever got up early would run down to the church and make a fire, so that by the time people started arriving at 10:30 it would already be nice and warm."

For younger participants like William Firth of Ft. McPherson and Allan Hayton of Anchorage, maintaining the Gwich'in spiritual tradition presents a special challenge.

Many younger Gwich'in have difficulty reading the traditional Tukudh texts because they contain many words and phrases which are no longer used in everyday speech. As well, much practice is required to learn the relationship between the sounds of the language and the Tukudh spellings devised by Archdeacon McDonald.

Firth sees himself as a "go-between" between the older and younger generations because he's been studying his language for over 20 years and is familiar with both the Tukudh and modern written forms.

"We teach our younger people that there is an earlier form of writing that we want to keep, and that their ancestors used for religious purposes, and not to forget that," he says.

Hayton says that he feels particularly connected to his ancestors during the two-week study session that precedes the service, when participants study and analyze the traditional liturgical language as well as practising Bible readings and hymns in Gwich'in.

"I can honestly say I felt the presence of my grandmother, and other elders from my childhood in Arctic Village who have since passed on," he says.

Yukon Native Language Centre director John Ritter notes that the participants in the Institute constantly shared their knowledge and insights with each other.

"Everyone worked very hard to connect the language with their lives, and to search for deep and subtle meanings in the traditional prayers and texts. The sense of shared ownership was evident in the high level of discussions, both in class and out," he says.

William Firth points out that the Anglican spiritual tradition was adapted by the Gwich'in for their own needs, not imposed on them.

"The way my people adapted the Anglican tradition, they put a lot of themselves into it, and we recognize it as our own.

"The Tukudh version (of the Anglican liturgy) is original to the Gwich'in. It's true to who we were then, and who we are now. We want to keep it alive."