Shishmaref (Alaska) Lutheran Church and Alaska Native Lutheran Church, Anchorage
Educator and coordinator of cultural programs for the Bering Strait School District

I believe God loves us as we are, and we should all know the contentment of being accepted as children of God. I believe God wants each of us to live in peace and harmony with everyone else on earth.

It’s important to me to express my faith through my Inupiaq (Eskimo) cultural singing and dancing because my Christian faith and my Inupiaq heritage define me and fully complement each other. I especially love singing hymns that are translated into or composed in Inupiaq. Hearing it in Inupiaq makes the songs even more beautiful and special.

To me, church is a place where we can worship together to strengthen our relationship with God and his people. Whether to give praise or offer comfort, the Scripture and songs are rejuvenating, refreshing, healing or whatever they need to be each week. To hear them, say them and sing them together creates shared experiences and the knowledge that others have similar struggles and celebrations.

Learning to Eskimo dance in high school was the catalyst that sparked my desire to reconnect more deeply with my Inupiaq heritage. “My Savior” is one of five dances I composed, and I love to share it: Anniqsuutiga (my Savior) Pakmani ittuq (he’s in heaven) Anisimazruq (he was born) Uiviilauraq (as a baby) Aġuisimazruq (he walked) Ilisautisimazruq (he taught) Tuqqitigaaŋa (he died for me) Waŋŋa atuqtuŋa (I sing) Quyaana (thank you).

Having the opportunity to help preserve the language and culture of indigenous communities in the Bering Strait School District is the biggest blessing I could ever ask for. Many aspects of our culture are alive and thriving. My goal is for the same to be true of our language and for some of the deeper, harder-to-articulate parts of our cultural traditions.

I pray that every person feels the love of God. That no one feels unwelcome or unworthy of being a child of God and, by extension, a member of the church. That we are ever learning and growing in our relationship with God. That we don’t communicate a sense of judgment or a need to change but communicate a sense of support and desire for growth when relating to others.

I struggle with the need to be bold and aggressive to keep aspects of our language and culture alive and thriving, and to be slow and considerate to not alienate or offend people who need to be involved. The two groups that have done and continue to do the most for the well-being of our people—the church and the school—are also the two groups that have done the most damage to certain aspects of our culture and language. Until we look deeply at what we do through both of these institutions, we will continue to both help and hurt our people. If we still find it offensive or uncomfortable to Eskimo dance with drums during a church service, we still erroneously believe that God doesn’t accept us when we express ourselves through our Inupiaq traditions, which is a failing in our church.

To me, grace means knowing we always fall short, we are never good enough, we will always make mistakes—but that doesn’t make us bad or unworthy. God loves us as we are. While he may sometimes be disappointed in the ways we treat each other or ourselves, he’ll never turn his back on us. We accept God’s grace not as an excuse to do what we want, but to be at peace with ourselves when we fall short. We extend that grace not to enable others, but to show we still love them and will work together in striving for the best we can be.

I’m a Lutheran, born and raised. Attending church every Sunday has been part of my life. Even as a teenager attending boarding school hundreds of miles away from my parents and as a young adult starting my independent life, I found a Lutheran church to attend. I gladly worship in other churches when I live in a community without a Lutheran church. But, just as my heart is filled when I’m immersed in my Inupiaq heritage, I also feel a greater peace when worshiping through the familiar structure and doctrine of my Lutheran upbringing. Qinuinaa Atanipta taimuŋa (the peace of the Lord be with you always).

I share my faith through songs and music, mostly, and also by regularly attending church and participating in the services. When there are opportunities for sharing a testimony or a song, I do. When there is hardship in the community, particularly when a community member dies, I share a hymn and some words.

I believe the future of the church carries the same hope for the next generation as we had growing up. Our children are still getting baptized, and the majority of kids attend Sunday school and confirmation. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and funeral services are packed, even with the large capacity of our church. While the number of people who regularly attend weekly services may sometimes fluctuate, particularly those times we don’t have a full-time pastor, we have a strong foundation and dedicated leaders in various aspects of our church.

Growing up hearing the gospel and hymns translated into the Inupiaq language, I never actually understood what was being said, but it was always wonderful to hear. When I hear the intonation and flow of fluent Inupiaq speech in the dialect of my hometown of Shishmaref, it fills my heart. When I was 17 years old, my late grandmother, Loretta Sinnok, started teaching me to sing translated hymns. In the beginning, she would let me know what each word referenced in the original song. We would sing the first ones together until I learned them. We didn’t consider them learned until they were learned by heart.

In speaking to youth at the 2018 MYLE (Multicultural Youth Leadership Event) before the Youth Gathering, I wanted to share my experience and journey with the conflict I feel between my culture and church, and my hopes to eliminate that internal conflict. While it was empowering to see aspects of many cultures included in the worship services, it was equally disheartening and painful that Alaska Native or American Indian cultural aspects were noticeably absent. Of the nearly 700 youth in attendance, only seven Alaska Native and American Indian youth were there. For us in rural Alaskan communities, we know little of our traditional spirituality and how it can be compatible with the teaching of Jesus. We will only put an end to the outrageous rates of suicide and substance and other kinds of abuse when we recognize self-loathing deep within many people because of conflict between who we are and who we think we are supposed to be to be successful or Christian. We need to believe that we can be fully indigenous and fully Christian at the same time. As Americans, we also need to recognize and honor the people of the First Nations of this land.

People are surprised I’m not actually a fluent speaker of Inupiaq. I studied our language formally and informally at different times throughout my life. I desperately want to make the jump from being able to understand parts of conversations to being able to speak in Inupiaq and answer when being addressed.

In my region of the country, climate change is simply our reality. I remember jumping into 3 feet of snow while trick-or-treating as a kid. Now it’s not unusual to hear the ocean waves crashing at Thanksgiving or sometimes even at Christmas. The ocean was always frozen in October growing up. It used to be late May, early June before we started getting ugzruk (bearded seal) for our precious seal oil and panaaluk (seal meat), but last year our spring hunt began before the end of April. The ice breaks up much earlier now than when I was a child.

 

Sentence prompts are provided to each person featured. If you’d like to nominate someone for “I’m a Lutheran,” email Megan Brandsrud.

Megan Brandsrud
Brandsrud is an associate editor of Living Lutheran.

Read more about: