Christianizing the Arctic

The role of churches in processes of social change is well documented in the Arctic. Missionaries exerted powerful intellectual influences on indigenous communities and parishioners; the dissemination of the Biblical Scriptures combined with the education of children served as the backbone of evangelism. Speaking Inuktitut, missionaries developed effective communication strategies. Isolated in their mission, some Christian missionaries competed openly alongside shamans, diverging when necessary from official Church instructions. For the Inuit, missionaries also provided access to Western ideas and products. Through the missionaries' role in providing social services and health care at the mission site, they sometimes encouraged the nomadic Inuit to settle permanently nearby. Culturally, missionaries rejected many aspects of traditional cosmologies (such as infanticide, spouse exchanges, drum dancing, etc.) and demonized their rivals, the shamans. From an important historical perspective, missionaries also introduced many traditions to the Inuit such as literacy, musical instruments, and songs, elements that the Inuit have since assimilated as part of their cultural identity. But missionaries clearly failed in completely replacing shamanism and Inuit cosmology with Christian beliefs. Powerful Inuit intercessors (such as camp leaders, catechists, lay readers, and shamans) played a major role by spreading the gospels. Such a process resulted in all kinds of transformations as Christian images and notions— sometimes compatible with Inuit traditions, sometimes incompatible—could not be integrated without being received and thus somehow changed by cultural schemes (Laugrand, 2002). Beliefs and values such as meeting experiences of nonhuman beings, respect for animals, respect for ancestors, the importance of namesake relationships, and the sharing of food and other resources remain vital and yet common experiences among contemporary Arctic societies.

Presently, the Arctic area is no longer considered as a field of mission. Within the Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches for instance, Inuit have become active participants in religious activities, replacing the Western missionaries and leading religious services and activities. This process started a long time ago, but the situation differs significantly depending on the Arctic regions. In Greenland, during the 19th century, the local missions employed catechists to become the elite. In the 1850s, many of them were thus educated in training centers and asked to write reports for the Mission. Catechists often contributed to the well-known Christian newspaper Atuagagliutit. They received a small pension, although mission authorities frequently moved them from place to place. In Canada, at the end of the 19th century, Reverend Edmund James Peck was the first Anglican missionary among the Nunavik Inuit to hire native leaders as catechists, for example, the shaman John Melucto in the Little Whale River area where Peck arrived to carry out missionary work in October of 1876. At the beginning of the 20th century, Peter Tulugarjuaq and Luke Qillapik acted as the first lay readers at the Anglican mission of Uumanaqjuaq, South Baffin Island. In the western Arctic, the first official Inuk deacon Thomas Umaok was ordained in 1928, but the first Inuit Anglican priest Armand Tagoona was only ordained 30 years later in 1960. The Catholic Church remained slightly more conservative in its approach, and although the church appointed native catechists and deacons (especially in Alaska), it failed to ordain any native priests and to significantly adapt Christianity to the Inuit traditions.

In Alaska and Canada, church authorities are aware that in the past, many social and cultural abuses occurred within their residential schools. Today church leaders encourage healing and reconciliation. Several Alaskan churches are thus participating in the reintroduction of native practices and spirituality. An example of such a movement can be found in Jesuit Father Rene Astruc's initiatives to reintroduce the masked dances from the past. When Astruc began his ministry in southwest Alaska in 1956, dancing as part of Yup'ik feasts no longer existed as missionaries forbade it at the end of the 19th century. Many of these spiritual ceremonies, such as the Agayuyaraq, an intervillage ceremony associated with the performance of masked dances usually at the end of the winter season, were abandoned. Representing a new generation of Jesuits, Astruc decided upon becoming superior of St Mary's Mission in southwestern Alaska in 1964, to help the Yup'ik reintroduce masked dances and drums with the aim of incorporating indigenous practices to cocreate a new form of Catholicism. Presently, Astruc asserts that the drum has found its place in the churches as a symbol of peace and that many elders rejoice in the recognition of their spirituality.

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