From the field… Alaska.

After a full day of meetings with Haida and Tlingit leaders on Prince of Wales Island, we had some time to relax and split a cord of firewood.

That’s the way we relax when serving in Alaska. For dinner, we headed down to the fisherman’s dock. A crab fisherman had just returned from a day on the water. He was selling Alaskan King Crab that he plucked it out of the water just outside the harbor.

Joel Buchanan with dinner

Abundance. Alaska has some of the most abundant natural resources on Earth. There are halibut, cod, shrimp, mussels, clams, crabs and so much more for the effort of walking into the tidal shore. Each summer, the fish clans return… the Sockeye clan, the King clan, the Humpback clan, the Coho clan, and the Dogfish clan… each providing a rich harvest and feeding the hungry animals who make their homes here.  On any given summer morning you can take a short walk to the Klawock River and see bears and eagles feasting on salmon clans. As long as there have been people in Alaska, are times of harvest to enjoy the abundance of God’s hand.

There is an ancient tradition among the Alaska Natives called potlatch. The main purpose of the potlatch was redistributing your wealth. Wealth in this culture is not determined by what you accumulate, but by what you give away. When a family threw a potlatch, they would invite people from all around and would give away everything they had, save a few necessities. Then they would start over. On some of the memorial totem poles, you will see a man with a hat that has a series of rings on it. The rings represent how many times he gave his wealth away.

In the official United States assimilation process, potlatch was seen as the greatest obstacle to Alaskan Natives becoming civilized. Potlatching was made illegal in the United States in the late 19th century at the urging of missionaries and governmental workers who considered it a useless custom that was “wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values.” (Gilbert M. Sproat , The Nootka: Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, 1868).  The crime of potlatch carried a minimum sentence of two months in jail. It begs a question. What is more uncivilized; giving your wealth away or imprisoning people who give their wealth away?

While the old form of celebration is gone, the potlatch principle is alive and well in the Haida and Tlingit communities as they celebrate Culture Camp. We send the Beaverton clan to Prince of Wales Island each summer and have been able to participate in these events.  What a blessing to learn from the Haida and Tlingit leaders, here. We have seen how the tribal leaders work on the restoration of native identity, especially with their children. 10 years ago, we were invited to come alongside these cultures and give our time to cultural restoration projects. 

You cannot read about what America did to the indigenous Alaskans on our way to enriching ourselves on the abundance of their land without sensing the injustice. We accumulated so much wealth from them! In potlatch tradition, we should have given it back several times over.  We told them about a Savior who promised abundant life, but we demonstrated something very different by our actions. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Jesus, but I don’t like your Christians.”  As Christians in a culture that dominates the world, we owe it to Jesus to be more introspective about what messages we bring. If we had imitated Jesus, I wonder how different our history with Alaskan Natives would have been.

Our team (the Beaverton clan) came to be a part of restoring something that was broken. Haida and Tlingit people have been generous in sharing about their culture. We have been welcomed and treated graciously. People stop by all the time to talk and admire the works we have done together: three new carving sheds, a traditional native lodge, a bell tower, a boat hose, restoration of a school house and more.  These are more than just buildings; they are visible symbols of Christ’s abundant love and a message of reconciliation. We are participating with the native clans of Southeast Alaska in the renewal of all things. We are repairing a breach that has stymied not only our relationship with one another, but our witness as followers of Jesus.

This summer, we will be sending Beaverton clan members to Prince of Wales Island, yet again. We will build, repair, harvest. We will serve alongside Joel and Trish Buchanan as they share the love of Jesus. Our high schoolers will play a significant role, as we are planning teams to go at the end of June. Aslan is on the move!

The native people of Alaska have experienced the scorn and judgement of our culture. They had to adjust to the power of a culture that exploited everything they held dear. It is time to turn that page – together.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Abundance – Jesus’ way.

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