Tommy Thompson Bio 4 Chitina, Alaska

CHAPTER 4

Chitina, Alaska

The name “Alaska” derives from an Athabascan term for “the Great Land”. This is no coincidence since Alaska is great in many ways.

Alaska measures 1,429 miles north to south, and more than 2,400 miles east to west. It has more than 6,640 miles of coastline, far more than the combined coastline of the continental United States. Beautiful mountains range across the land. Many peaks are snow-covered year around. Denali, sometimes known as Mt. McKinley, with an elevation of 20,320 feet, is the highest peak in North America.

Alaska is rich in natural resources. Minerals such as gold and copper have brought wealth and notoriety when unscrupulous prospectors came north to seek their fortunes. Of course, oil is now the biggest influence on the economy of Alaska.

When we arrived in 1954, Alaska was still a territory of the United States and governed by the federal government in Washington D.C. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.

I have found the ways and life-rhythms of the Alaska native peoples to be most interesting. The native peoples in Alaska’s interior are fishers and hunters. They hunt moose and caribou, but bear and rabbit are also eaten and their skins used for clothing or shelter. Blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries and raspberries are picked and stored for the winter months. Fish, especially salmon, are a major source of food and income.

Rivers are essential to the cycle of life because they provide the fish that are so central to sustaining life during the winter In the summer, their icy-cold, fast-flowing, silt-filled waters can drown a person in seconds. Yet the native people have perfected techniques using nets and fish-wheels to safely harvest Red, Silver and King salmon. The salmon are cleaned and smoked, and then used throughout the long winters to feed families and teams of dogs. These massive rivers freeze to depths of four to five feet in the winter.

In the Athabascan Indian language, “chit” means “copper”, and “na” means “river”. Chitina (pronounced “chit-na”) was the village to which God called us. Chitina is located on the banks of the mighty Copper River where it meets the smaller Chitina River in south-central Alaska, about 70 miles southeast of Glenallen, and about a 248-mile drive northward from the city of Anchorage.

Chitina is in an area populated by the Athabascan Indian people, the largest native people group in Alaska. Their history in Alaska goes back thousands of years. They live in many villages scattered hundreds of miles apart. Alaska was under Russia control and influence for 126 years. The United States Congress authorized the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. Therefore the native culture was affected by these two international powers.

Like the Aleuts of the Aleutian Chain, the Tlingits of the Alaskan Panhandle, and the Eskimos of the western and northern coastal regions, the Athabascans were subjected to rough handling at the hands of the Russians and Americans. Russian and American adventurers brought foreign diseases and illnesses to Alaska. Many natives got sick and often died. It was not unusual for whole villages to be wiped out. Native girls and women were raped or bartered to unscrupulous traders to settle debts.

The Russian Orthodox Church imposed its beliefs on top of the Athabascan’s native animist beliefs. Shaman, similar to witch doctors, played a key function in the village (including Chitina) by using mystical, demonic ceremonies to control the people. The result was a conflicting mixture of native mysticism and Russian Orthodox ritual that basically forced conformity through fear.

Hundreds of years later, the Russian influence can still be seen in some ways in remote areas. For instance, even now there are still village councils that are manipulated by local Russian Orthodox priests.

When the United States took over from Russia, its initial policy toward Alaska Natives was assimilation. This meant that the U.S. government discouraged the native languages and taught children exclusively in English. There was one central school drawing students from villages in that area. This meant that children had to leave home for their education, but then were not taught in their native tongue.

With American governmental control came American-style religious denominationalism which divided Alaska into areas of operation. Any native born in a denomination’s predetermined area of operation was considered by other groups to belong to that denomination. In the early 1900s, Chitina was a thriving boomtown. It catered to the construction of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway and was a centre for operations of the nearby Kennecott Mine. The mine closed in 1938 and the operations moved away. The railway was closed down.

By the time we arrived in the mid-1950s, Chitina was in decline. The natives were left without any means of support and this caused a hopeless spirit for them. Alcoholism became prevalent and some otherwise useful men became its victims. Today the estimated year-round population of Chitina is about 120, although tourism and fishing swell the population during summer months.

Our knowledge was very limited when the Lord first laid Alaska on our hearts. God had designs of grace toward the Chitina natives and was about to make His power known by the gospel.