GunalchÈesh . We have heard this word many times since we began to come and work here. It means thank you in Tlinget. No – more than that…. GunalchÈesh means thank you from the depth of my being. It includes the notion, “your story and my story are part of each other, now.” It is so much more than a nod to another person’s generosity. It acknowledges something mutual. We are part of each other’s stories. We are connected! And those of us who have come to serve in Alaska among the Tlinget people are learning about a heart of thankfulness from our hosts.
In Tlinget culture, you move with a sense of thankfulness; for your ancestors and elders, for the blessings of abundance in sea and forest, for the giving of life for life (“these creatures die, that we might live”), for family, and for friends. It is all about connectedness. But we have also seen the heart of bitterness; from the curse of the encounter with western power, from death for life (“we invited these new people into our story, but we were overwhelmed by their power, and we died to disease, greed and cultural disrespect”), from reprogramming (“our children were taken from us to attend your Christian boarding schools in order to get the savage out of them”), and from having such powerful enemies. And that comes from cultural estrangement.
Last year, a Haida woman asked me, “Why didn’t the missionaries, people who ostensibly represented Jesus, take the time to listen before they spoke? If they had, they would have learned that we already believed in a Creator God. All they had to do was tell us who He is.”
Like other First Nations people, their encounter with American power was devastating to their own culture. So we talked a lot about this with them. We were given a rare insight into the ways our dominant, powerful culture interacts with people who cannot stand against us. It is not easy to listen to. But forgiveness begins when we give up all hope for a better past and begin to look for a future with the Holy Spirit leading us. That is a redeemed future.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1Cor 9:19-23)
How far are we willing to go for the sake of reconciliation? Would we be willing to come and walk alongside people who are trying to restore their cultural identity? Would we be willing to learn, rather than try to correct? Would we make peace for the sake of peace? Would we die to self and learn about faith from the perspective of suffering rather than a perspective of triumph? Would we humbly become part of each other’s stories?
I am in Alaska with two teams from Beaverton Foursquare church. We are here at the invitation of the native Alaskans. The first team arrived to work with the people of Klawock on preparing a concrete pad for the construction of a carving hut. The Klawock people, who are Tlinget, provided the place, the material, the design, co-laborers, the hospitality and the hand of friendship. We provided some technical expertise in foundation construction, some boots on the ground, and the hand of friendship. There is genuine mutuality in our exchange. We are becoming part of each other’s stories. And in August, we will build the carving hut together.
The second team has been working on splitting firewood, harvesting and canning. We are building a storehouse of gifts to be given to the people of the island, which they will use to provide for their people, primarily elders, during the hard winter months. Gift giving is a significant part of friendship and connectedness in Tlinget culture. The potlash was an ancient celebration wherein one clan would invite another clan and would serve them lavishly, for the sake of their friendships with one another. When we provide these gifts, we enter the culture. We enter the story.
We could learn a lot from the Tlinget notion of thankfulness; of entering one another’s stories and becoming connected in a way that transcends culture, place and even time. For that revelation from my Tlinget friends, I am thankful… in the Tlinget way… GunalchÈesh!