The Story of an Alaska Native Pastor: Charley Brower

The Story of an Alaska Native Pastor: Charley Brower
Rev. Charles Brower

Rev. Brower serves as pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Nome, Alaska. He shared his story as part of the Missionary Conferences mission study.

I was once known as 74,
not Charley Brower,
not Asiaqnataq (my Inupiaq name),
not even "Hey You."

I was sent to Wrangell Institute in Wrangell, Alaska, about a thousand miles from my home in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow, Alaska) as a 10-year-old to finish my primary education. All my clothes and everything I owned were marked with 74.

I was assigned a bunk in a room of eight children from several communities throughout Alaska. Kids similar in age, all of us away from homes of caring families, and most of all away from the cultures that cared and taught us to survive. My mother died while I was still adjusting to the Wrangell Institute; I could not go home for her funeral.

Then came Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska. Over four years, I made many friends from many cultures and communities throughout Alaska.

Yes, I learned

  • my social studies,
  • mathematics,
  • proper English,
  • world history, and
  • an introduction to trades —

but would those studies help me to survive in the Arctic once I returned home? The skills and knowledge I acquired helped me to live in the world of the dominant culture—not in the traditional hunter and gatherer world of the Inupiaq.

I graduated from high school in May of 1963. Then in August of that year I was plucked from a hunting trip somewhere out in the tundra, quickly bathed, and was on an airplane to Los Angeles, California. I remember being mesmerized by the endless lights as we approached Los Angeles. Nothing prepared me for the immensity of the city!

I was to learn an electronic technician trade so I could help maintain early warning systems spread across the arctic—or so the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs had planned for me. The RCA technician school at Sixth and Main in Los Angeles closed and we were moved to New York City and live in tenement apartments in Newark, New Jersey.

Hunter and Gatherer Tradition

My culture (Inupiaq of northern Alaska) is primarily a hunter/gatherer tradition. Our food comes from the ocean, rivers, and the tundra surrounding our village. To become a successful contributor to our society, one must learn how nature impacts not only our weather, but also how the animals and plants we eat, live and develop alongside our communities.

Safely hunting, traveling, and living in a harsh climate requires learning how winds, ocean currents, and temperatures impact how we travel, live and learn. Hunting and gathering successfully requires teamwork among family groups, partnership formed with friends, and being part of a traditional "crew."

If one grows up not knowing what is expected and what could result from not knowing, one's options are very limited. Textbook and classroom learning do not teach ice conditions, prevailing winds, ocean currents, or safe weather predicting and survival—all items needed in an intimate, innate sense if one is to survive arctic life. Without the training of the senses, how could one be considered as a hunting partner? 

Struggle to Fit In

Many boarding school survivors struggle with fitting into the cultures they come from.

  • Some find 'peace' in a bottle.
  • Some find 'goodwill' in substance abuse with friends.
  • Some find 'a life' attempting suicide.

All struggle with this 'peace, goodwill, and life' in attempts to fit in.  To fit into a society they lived in, but culturally do not belong in. Or to fit into a culture they were born into but never learned.

Their daily struggles impact their family and children as well. Many survivors do not cope well. Their children do not know why their parents seek 'peace, goodwill, and life' in socially unacceptable ways.

Until we in churches understand this group of survivors and their offspring, we cannot offer them meaningful ways of becoming disciples for the transformation of their world. 

Having experienced the cultural factions caused by boarding schools and relocation programs has helped me understand how some of my peers could not deal positively with the destructive power of not belonging to the culture in which we were born.

Our loving God led me to this place —  Nome, Alaska — to this ministry with many of Alaska's native peoples. God's presence is easily seen in this place, in the faces of the children and grandchildren of those suffering and not knowing their place in society.

By taking away so much of what we were born into, mainstream society rejects the very ones they once sought to forcefully "integrate."

Despite such, God is still at work. Each day, I see God at work in this vast land drawing people together and renewing their lives.  Joy and hope permeate my soul. Amen.

Posted or updated: 11/14/2017 12:00:00 AM