News Archives

Nome congregation keeps native language alive in ministry
LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Lucy Barton

The Inupiaq choir of Community United Methodist Church in Nome, Alaska sings at special Sunday services.

Dec. 21, 2005

By Lilla Marigza*

NOME, Alaska (UMNS) — A familiar tune flows from a little church in one of the most remote areas of the United States. Nome is 539 miles north of Anchorage and accessible only by air.

Outside the Community United Methodist Church, snow falls and doesn’t melt for most of the year. Daylight sometimes lasts only a few hours.

But the coldest of winter is a special time here. On this day the choir is practicing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Christmas is filled with familiar hymns sung in a language centuries old. The choir is keeping a threatened language alive.

“To young people it’s a very difficult language now,” says 77-year-old Esther Bourdon, a Native Alaskan. She grew up speaking Inupiaq in Wales, an Inupiat village on the most western point of the Alaskan Seward Peninsula. Natives say that on a clear day you can see Russia from there. The Inupiat parishioners of the church sing their language in the Wales dialect.

Spanning hundreds of years of Eskimo culture and tradition, the Inupiaq language is one of the most challenging in the world to learn. Few Native Alaskans know this ancestral tongue anymore. “They don’t speak it. And here they were having a hard time trying to say words,” Bourdon says.

Inupiaq encompasses a family of dialects that is recognized in parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. The Inupiat people are hunters and fishers who live in small communities that have a strong culture of storytelling and singing. The language often reflects the close ties within family and community and their connection to the land and wildlife.

When Bureau of Indian Affairs schools were established by the U.S. government, the language was not allowed to be spoken, and the children learned English. The threat of severe disciplinary action persuaded them to disregard their native language. Inupiaq was reserved for speaking at home.

Another factor that has endangered the culture was the Flu Epidemic of 1918. When it hit the area, many of the elders in Inupiat villages died and took the cultural stories, dances and songs with them.

Bourdon says in her 50 years at this church, three pastors have embraced and learned to speak the language of some of Alaska’s native people. The church has about 35 active members, about two-thirds of whom are native, but its total number of participants is double that size.

When the Revs. John and Debbie Pitney were assigned to the Community United Methodist Church in 1981, they decided to learn as much of the language as they could. Half of the small congregation was native at the time.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Lucy Barton

Choir member Esther Bourdon (seated) encourages younger Alaskan natives to learn the Inupiaq language.

“Language is everything,” John Pitney explains. “Language is the primary way that culture is passed on. We did our part to keep that going.” He is currently on staff at First United Methodist Church in Eugene, Ore., where Debbie serves as senior pastor.

“It is a rhythmic language to me,” Pitney says. “Words and sounds are spoken further back in the throat, and I remember it being spoken fairly softly.”

The language centered on survival, he says. “It was the key. Everything about the Inupiat villages was about survival, and that was a fundamental value.” For instance, he recalls that there are nearly 40 Inupiaq words to describe snow and its various qualities.

The Pitneys say they were never fully conversant in the language, but John learned enough to translate several hymns, compiling a book that is used today by the church choir. After the Pitneys left Nome, the Rev. Bob Bowers published a second edition.

The Rev. Lucile Barton is the current pastor of Community United Methodist Church. Barton says the congregation continues to refine the collection. “We sing the Doxology in Inupiaq most of the time, and Esther translates a portion of the Gospel reading each Sunday as well,” Barton says.

A California native, Barton continues to learn the language of the congregation she serves. “It’s been a really learning, growing experience for me to live in this culture.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Lucile Barton

Translating hymns into Inupiaq has not been easy, since it is primarily a spoken language that doesn’t lend easily to printed text. “It has sounds that we don’t use in English and you have to listen carefully and learn to repeat those sounds and also when it’s written the words get very, very long,” Barton notes.

The hymnal collection has grown and been fine-tuned by church members.

“We still find that there are songs where we are singing along and they’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’” Barton would like to see more translated songs. “There are other songs that Esther and Polly (Koweluk, Esther’s sister) and some of the others know, that we don’t have written down, but we don’t have very many people who can write (the language).” The current collection is compiled in a loose-leaf church hymnal.

The Inupiaq choir is something special, and the people of Nome know it. The group is often asked to sing at special events and funerals of native Alaskans. Barton is the only non-native in the 10-person choir.

Barton says it is an honor to sing at funerals, but it’s also a reminder that the choir keeps a culture alive. “There have been a number of people during the six and a half years I have been here who have died, and I have looked at the group and wondered if we were going to be able to continue it. It’s been really exciting to me to see some young people begin to participate in the choir and learn to sing these translated songs.”

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Jan Snider or Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Video Stories

Christmas Tradition in Alaska: Native choir sings for the season

Recycling in Alaska: Thrift store offers rare bargains

Related Articles

Pastor tells Christmas story through totem pole

Pastor challenges Native Americans to use culture in worship

Native American caucus explores bringing 'culture' into church


Alaska Missionary Annual Conference

The Advance