Presbyterian Church formally apologizes to North Slope Natives for denouncing culture

Utgiagvik, Alaska (File photo by Steven Kazlowsk)

At 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2017 in Utqiagvik, an apology from the head of the Presbyterian Church will be offered to the Alaska Native people of the North Slope. The idea is to start a process of healing by acknowledging that the Church, however well intended, was wrong, when it denounced the cultures of Native people, both in Alaska and across the nation. Reverend Joe Reid is the pastor for the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church. It is the oldest on the North Slope and shares the name of the community formerly known as Barrow. Reverend Reid said a vote by national church leaders in June was unanimous that an apology was needed.

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“And I suggested that we ought to invite the Stated Clerk so that we could be the first to have them come up and do this apology to Alaska Natives,” Reid said.

The Stated Clerk is the top administrator and spokesperson for the Church.

Reverend Curt Karns is the executive for the Presbytery of the Yukon, a region that stretches from Anchorage to the north. Karns gave an apology at AFN last fall. He says the wrong started with a 16th century action called the Doctrine of Discovery, a manifest destiny type document that gave churches the rights to take land from non-Christian people and sell it to other Christians. Along with land exploitation, came the exploitation of the original people who lived there. He says when the churches came to Alaska, they tried to figure out how to minister in an area so big. Enter Sheldon Jackson, the Presbyterian director for missions in the west.

“He organized a conference of protestant leaders from across the country and they really did, they just divided it up and said Lutherans will go there and Methodists will go here and Covenant Church over there and they just divided it up,” Karns said.

Reverend Karns said they wanted to do good things, but they came with the assumption that being Christian meant becoming more European. And he said, that superiority attitude is at the heart of the apology.

“That’s the kind of thing that leads to racist attitudes, it leads to cultural paternalism, that’s the kind of thing that we’re apologizing for and there were specific things that happened in terms of teaching people that their language was, they need to learn English, you can’t speak your language, there was one missionary that went so far to say the language was so heathen you couldn’t put Christian thought into it. That kind of thinking is so un-Christian that we have to apologize for it. We still deal with racism, with cultural paternalism, we’re not done with that today.”

During the Presbyterians meeting in June, another historic event took place, in addition to the vote to apology and denounce the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery, the church made the first African American Reverend, the new Stated Clerk Jay Herbert Nelson II is in Utqiagvik to make the apology this evening.

“We are apologizing for what we have done, even with some of the good intentions that those who started schools in Alaska had, we were wrong,” Nelson said. “And I think that frees us to some degree but it also frees those who have carried the burdens and who have seen many current day problems particularly with families resulting in some tragic responses to life in this present day.”

Lucy Apatiki is from Gambell on St Lawrence Island, she is a former lay pastor and chokes back tears as she talks about the church doctrine that ripped her community apart.

“And we came against resistance from our own people within the church and because of that, we researched why that was. The first Christians in our community were told that our drumming and dancing were evil. It was like they were indoctrinated to believe that the drum and dancing were evil.”

Apatiki said the apology is a huge step toward healing and coming together to respect the integrity of Native cultures within the church.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori