“For centuries, social scientists have struggled with the true meaning of culture. It has been said that culture is an essential weapon against the chaos of life and death, a means by which continuity from generation to generation can be ensured, and an endorsement of order and meaning. When it becomes misplaced, social chaos permeates.” —Pete Schaeffer Kotzebue, Alaska Natives’ Loss of Social & Cultural Integrity
“There can be an overwhelming sense of spiritual darkness, much different than what I knew before,” says Mark McGee, director of the Tanalian Bible Camp in Port Alsworth, Alaska.
“Alcoholism, violence, domestic abuse, and suicide—general hopelessness permeates. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about why exactly is it so difficult in the villages, and still, we are left with more questions than answers.”
The territory he is referring to is the Bush, a scattering of remote tundra villages across rural Alaska, where over eighty percent of the state’s native population resides. Accessible only by bush plane and a few small inroads, the isolation of these communities from the outside world can be daunting.
But the town of Port Alsworth, home to Tanalian Bible Camp, manages to stand out from the rest. Located within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the remote village consists primarily of families whose lifestyles stand in stark contrast to the despondency of the region. Transformed by the gospel, many have dedicated their lives to providing a central gathering place to help combat the destructive elements of isolation. Many see Tanalian Bible Camp as a safe haven, where the elements of faith, creativity, friendship, and learning are fostered with thoughtful intentionality.
Mark describes Tanalian as a “peaceful and restful place that takes you out of the normal routine—away from distraction—to find focus, and to consider the big questions of life.”
Every year, his team flies inhabitants and youth from native villages to the camp. Youth are connected with mentors; healthy, life-giving activities are encouraged; hearts and minds are healed; and many give their lives to Jesus, bringing what they’ve learned back to their home villages. The town is a training ground for the Gospel to permeate the recesses of rural Alaska, a region that has remained stubbornly resistant to outside influences for over a century.
With suicide rates 14 times that of other states and ninety percent of its jails made up of substance abusers, Alaska’s spiritual, societal, and cultural climate is nothing short of alarming. Although he doesn’t claim to be an expert on the sociological causes of addiction, Mark did offer some helpful observations.
“What I’ve seen is the presence of a very deep-seated trauma, which we’re still learning about, with barriers that we’re still trying to understand,” he says. “Trauma has impacted villages in deep, profound ways.”
Mark is alluding to the heart of Native Alaska’s unsettling past: the 1918 flu epidemic. Rural Alaska was one of the hardest regions hit, making it the greatest human tragedy in their recorded history. Sixty percent of the population was decimated and entire villages were wiped out, leaving myriad physical and psychological casualties in its wake. The Alaska Trekker describes this pivotal time as “a world ended.” A lifestyle of fishing and trapping that had been in place for centuries and a casual engagement with the market economy—poof—gone. Overnight.
The town is a training ground for the Gospel to permeate the recesses of rural Alaska, a region that has remained stubbornly resistant to outside influences for over a century.
This world of Alaskan natives revolved around a phenomenon named Yuuyaraq, or a “way of being human.” It served as the core of their spiritual understanding of God and life. The practice of passing down knowledge and stories from teachers and elders, as well as intimate sharing of food, friendships and daily life, were part of rituals held sacred for thousands of years. It was where they found their source of purpose, healing, connection, and meaning.
So when this way of life was lost, according to Native Alaskan author Harold Napoleon, people never quite got over it. In its place, a sense of shame was distilled, as if the entire epidemic was no one’s fault but their own.
“I saw a lot of violence, guilt and shame, passed onto us by our parents, and never understood any of it,” Harold says in the documentary Yuuyaraq. “Many things they told me, I never understood.”
Enter early Western influences who, however well-meaning, provided only a veneer of a solution. Many governmental and religious groups approached the catastrophe with a bevy of misguided assimilation strategies. Pete Schaeffer, author of Alaska Natives’ Loss of Social & Cultural Integrity, explains, “The Natives were pressured—and in many instances forced—to replace their interpretations of life and the world around them with the sometimes ill-defined and little understood tenets on which Western ways are based.”
While there were those who did receive the good news of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption, originally advocated by Jesus himself, there were also a great deal who were convinced they were dying because of who they were, the way they lived and what they believed. Although these misperceptions are vulnerabilities shared with the whole of humanity, the inability to properly process the weight of trauma was heightened in the villages.
Many governmental and religious groups approached the catastrophe with a bevy of misguided assimilation strategies.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s rural Alaska or downtown Chicago, every community in the world has their own brand of coping—their own forms of escapism or external validation—that inevitably lead to the cutting down of human worth. It all comes down to the same underlying causes. But out here, the isolation accelerates negative cultural habits, perpetuating cycles that grow increasingly more difficult to reverse over time,” says Mark.
Within the villages’ insulated echo chambers and the absence of differing perspectives, the culture of shame and suppression is normalized. So in the place of silence, coping mechanisms arise under the guise of what’s perceived to be socially acceptable—like binge drinking, domestic violence, and even suicide.
“If we don’t deal with trauma, large or small, we’re set up for numbness, unforgiveness, bitterness, and an inability to deal with grief or the hard things of life. These characteristics become normalized, and rebellion in our hearts begin to grow. Our hope here is to sift through that confusion, the fog of trauma and unbelief, and introduce Jesus in a light which is true—the way he is presented in the Bible.”
Mark himself is no stranger to trauma. When he was a senior in high school, a sudden death of a classmate by a severe illness impacted him deeply. He realized his actions did not reflect to others what God had done for him in his own life, and that things needed to change. As he experienced more of the world, his eyes opened to the great amount of needs that existed, far more significant to his own. His original dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot slowly transformed into a desire for missionary aviation. He got married in 1994, and when an opportunity opened up in western Alaska to serve as a pilot and mechanic, both he and his wife Andrea felt led to accept . Eventually, their deepening desires to serve in a more relational and discipleship capacity drew the both of them to Tanalian Bible Camp in Port Alsworth. Twenty years have passed since they first moved to Alaska, and they’re still there.
“I’ve been here long enough and I’d like to think I’m an Alaskan now. Although I come from a different heritage, I feel that there’s a lot we can learn from one another. We’re all in this internal process for God to reshape areas of our hearts and lives that have yet to conform to him. Regardless of how imperfect or messed up of a reflection of him we have been, or how bad the circumstances, I believe what Jesus says—that everybody has hope, and that if you seek him, you’ll find that he is the ultimate reformer.”
Dealing with unresolved transgenerational grief borne of epidemics, forced assimilation, religious persecution, and attempts at cultural eradication will not be easy. It is a long and difficult journey, but there is hope.
“Our goal is to break down barriers. It’s not necessarily to change the Alaskan way of life or even its native culture, but to transform the heart. Real and lasting change doesn’t come from conforming to a particular heritage, but in our relationship to to Jesus, the living God. We’re not here to change culture, but to walk alongside them, and allow Jesus to transform our hearts from the inside out, mine included.”
In Jesus, we find Yuuyaraq redeemed—a transformed way of life and what it truly means to be human. Even native healers and elders agree that opening conversations to disentangle the layered trauma of the soul is the first major step towards healing.
“I believe what Jesus says—that everybody has hope, and that if you seek him, you’ll find that he is the ultimate reformer.”
Keenan and Hannah, a couple of homegrown Alaskans, shared a story about how this process looks. Sitting beside a warming slate hearth and over a meal of moose tacos, they divulged a narrative about a village that Keenan’s father prayed over for nearly 30 years. Many of Tanalian’s students and campers return home to this village after camp with reformed lifestyles, and are often met with misunderstandings, hostility, or social ostracization for doing so. It can sometimes take up to 10 years, or more, before genuine transformation begins to visibly take place. One example was when one of the residents from this particular village came out to camp for a family conference, and finally expressed remorse for previous animosity towards the intentions of Tanalian and other Christian leaders in her village that had lasted nearly a decade.
It is one thing to meet Jesus at Tanalian Bible Camp, and entirely another thing to bring Christ back to the villages. For most students and campers in this particular village and many others, maintaining their newly-chosen faith requires a long road—a battle of strength, surrender, loneliness, sacrifice, and courage.
“When it comes to receiving Christ, there are still many barriers that we’re still seeking to understand,” says Mark.
“Progress is happening, and it seems really slow from a human perspective. But I’ve grown to realize that we cannot measure the impact of the Gospel in years. My hope is that everyone here—the staff, the campers, the volunteers—would continue to be in the Word, and to encourage and build one another up in a way that doesn’t end at camp, but is lifelong. I believe that in doing so will not just impact western Alaska, but the entire state, and the rest of the world.”