Alaska 2008

Hau kolas,

I recently returned home from a remarkable spiritual gathering in the Tsimsian Village of Metlakatla in SE Alaska. My Tsimsian/Haida friend Doug Yates invited me to join him and several others for a traditional cultural gathering he and several Metlakatla community members organized for us to address the spiritual history and future of the people. Bill Pagarin, Tlingit from Palmer, AK and Guy Peters, Athabascan from Fairbanks, AK were also part the team.

We had the great honor to be welcomed by the traditional mayor and elders of the village as guests to come and speak to their people. Gifts and words of welcome were exchanged as traditional protocol was followed. Like many Alaska Native villages they have a mixed-bag history and experience with Christianity and missions. In a community of 1200 there are eight churches that have experienced painful and divisive church splits, takeovers, animosity among family members, and a serious misrepresentation of Jesus and His ways.

Metlakatla was founded in 1887 be a “Christian village” when 825 tribal members relocated from the “Old Metlakatla Village” in British Columbia, Canada under the leadership of an Anglican missionary, William Duncan. Along the way the cultural ways of the people were dismissed and nearly lost as a result of oppressive missions’ beliefs and practices. At one point it became one of the most prosperous self-sustaining Native communities in the U.S. because of fishing and timber. Sadly, however, this helped open the door to what became a terrible period of drug, alcohol and domestic abuse too.

The people are strong and resilient. Today’s generation of leaders are longing and working for a better future for their children and future generations. There has been an incredible cultural revitalization take place in the past twenty years with the songs, dances, arts and language. It has not been seen as flowing out of their Christianity but outside of it, and often, in spite of it. We were called there to help them make the dynamic connection between their faith and their culture.


All of the organizers of this event had read my book, One Church Many Tribes, in the past two years and expressed how much it helped them as Native followers of Jesus. They have been looking forward to the day when I would come to Metlakatla to share the vision of walking with Jesus as a culturally Native person with the people of their village.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings dozens of traditional dancers and singers worshipped with their beautiful songs and “story-telling dances.” Members of the Killer Whale and Fourth Generation Dance Groups wore beautiful button blankets, masks, woven and carved hats, carried various carved cedar paddles, clubs and shields and invited us to join them in dancing. Throughout the weekend we feasted on salmon, seal oil, halibut, herring eggs, salmon berry dessert, clan chowder, deer, seaweed, and other traditional ocean delicacies like “gumboots (a mussel).” It was described by several tribal members as a “really good potlatch.”

I spoke all three evenings about the depth of freedom that Jesus brings into peoples lives to know and walk with Creator. I addressed issues of shame and unbelief toward God for not accepting our own cultural ways as being capable of expressing biblical faith. One brother said when he first became a follower of Jesus, “he got his new eyes and the world looked different.” On the final evening I said there would be dancing in heaven and said we could get a preview of what it would look like if they would come into the circle and dance with their traditional Tsimsian regalia and dance. When the song ended the dance floor was full of people.

The Holy Spirit sharpened our vision to see our cultures with “new eyes” of faith and our hearts were filled joy, laughter and thankfulness as we worshipped Jesus with the sounds and movements of the people of the land. The future merged with today and left us with a better past. So now, as these people look out of their past to the future, they know Creator/Jesus is with them to help them overcome the sins of their fathers, oppression of the past and live in a good way. Everyone involved agreed that this was to become an annual celebration. Make plans to join us in January ‘09 for the 2nd Metlakatla Honoring Our Creator Cultural Celebration

Ho hecetuwe yelo – “that’s the way it is”


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