New Challenges in Nome

New Challenges in Nome
Youth learn to appreciate their native culture at a camp in Salmon Lake, Alaska.

When prospectors discovered gold at the edge of the Bering Sea in 1898, word quickly spread, and by the following year 10,000 people arrived in what the newcomers decided to call Nome. By the summer of 1900, 20,000 people had made the long journey north, and a tent city stretched for 30 miles along a beach whose sands were laced with gold.

From the beginning of the gold rush, tensions emerged between the newcomers and the indigenous Inupiat who hunted game, fished and gathered greens and berries on the sparsely populated tundra. Mining claims could only be staked by citizens, so natives — considered “uncivilized” and thus not eligible for citizenship — couldn’t benefit from the economic boom. Gold mining damaged or destroyed salmon streams, leaving native peoples without a key staple of their diet. Hungry prospectors decimated herds of moose, caribou and small game. White people also brought tobacco, alcohol and disease.

Eleven decades later, a new gold rush — fueled by rising gold prices and a reality television program about gold miners in the Bering Sea community — has brought new tensions to Nome. Yet United Methodist Women, whose foremothers were in ministry in Nome shortly after the first gold rush, is working to support life-giving ministries in the community.

The early days

The Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church got started in ministry in Alaska in 1886 when it provided support for Ethelda Carr, who went with her husband, a government teacher, to the Shumagin Islands. They were among the first envoys of Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who was placed in charge of the government’s education program in Alaska. Mr. Jackson believed that native peoples needed “civilizing,” so he ordered that English be taught to native children, who were prohibited from speaking their native languages or engaging in cultural practices such as singing and dancing. In some native communities, children were taken from their families and placed in church-run schools, including Methodist institutions, and were often physically punished if caught speaking their native language.

While Protestant mission efforts had devastating effects on native culture and families, church-run programs also tried to help native communities adversely affected by the arrival of white people. In Sinuk, 26 miles west of Nome, the Woman’s Home Missionary Society in 1909 started an income-generating project to help indigenous peoples enter the cash economy — a central plank of Sheldon Jackson’s “civilization” process — by raising reindeer introduced from northern Europe. That ministry, which soon included a native Methodist congregation and an orphanage for children who lost their parents to the diseases that white people had brought to the region, moved to Nome in 1912. The women’s society also established a hospital in Nome in 1913.

From the beginning, children’s ministries played a central role in Methodist missions in Nome. A roadhouse at Cape Nome was purchased and used as a summer camp for children until 1920. In Nome, a community center was established in 1911, and by 1914 had a large gymnasium and classrooms for educational activities and club meetings. It provided a place for children and adults to gather and learn.

Two Methodist churches — one native, one white — existed for decades on opposite corners of a Nome intersection, at times served by the same pastor, until their merger in 1949. What’s now called the Nome Community Center moved into the former native church.

The Rev. David Elmore, executive director of Nome Community Center, says the agency’s primary focus on helping people survive amid shifting cultural and economic storms hasn’t changed much over the decades.

“The mission to ‘civilize’ the natives — which meant speaking English, becoming Christian and having a type of job where something was made or produced — has had a devastating impact on native people here, producing depression and a sense of not knowing who you are,” Mr. Elmore said. “It was a big change from a subsistence economy where you spent summers gathering greens and berries, fishing and hunting, accumulating food to make it through the winter, when you hunkered down until summer came.

“With the missionaries came a capitalist economy and the idea of needing a 9-5 kind of job. As isolated as Nome and much of Bush Alaska are, there aren’t many of those kinds of manufacturing or production jobs. There are administrative, social service and health care jobs, but these are mostly filled by people who come from the outside. That history helped create a sense of hopelessness. Many natives use the term ‘cultural trauma.’ So part of our job is to help people understand who they are as individuals created by God and to nurture the skills necessary for them to survive in the mixed culture where people find themselves now.”

Elders and children

Elders hold a place of respect in native Alaskan culture, and Nome Community Center has long sponsored programs for older residents, both native and non-native. In a building owned by the city, the center operates the XYZ Senior Center. It offers a laundry and showers for seniors and provides them with transportation to medical appointments, shopping and cultural events. It also hosts an adult day care program for seniors who are struggling to live on their own. With sewing, puzzles and other intentional activities to keep hand-eye coordination and reasoning skills alive, the seniors can stay in their homes longer before needing to enter a specialized care facility.

The senior center also provides lunch five times a week in the winter, though only four times a week in the summer when many seniors spend long weekends at their families’ camps on the tundra.

“To have lunch at the senior center is a way for the elders to come together socially, to meet new people, to hear their stories, and for newcomers to integrate themselves into the community,” said Darlene Trigg, a board member of the Nome Community Center.

At the other end of the age range, the Nome Community Center provides a variety of services to the city’s children, including a home that provides local placement for children who are removed from their homes by the state for safety reasons. By keeping them in the community, it makes it easier to work for eventual reunification of the family, Mr. Elmore says. In the meantime, Nome Community Center staff work with affected families on issues such as obtaining safe housing, acquiring job training and learning parenting skills necessary for the families to be reunited.

“Most parents want to be good parents. But they get overwhelmed by life and substance abuse issues or just having children when they’re relatively young and not having yet developed the skills necessary to raise a family,” Mr. Elmore said.

Historically, most of the children placed into foster care come from native families, a fact Mr. Elmore acknowledges is a concern for many in the community. Native peoples compose roughly half of Nome’s population, which drops to about 3,500 during the long dark winter.

“The primary responsibility in native culture for raising children has moved from grandparents to parents, yet often the new parents don’t know what is required to make a safe home,” Mr. Elmore said. “The state gets involved when they see that a parent isn’t meeting the requirements to provide a safe home. This raises difficult questions regarding intercultural encounters and whether we’re judging another people according to our standards. At the same time, one of my core values as a United Methodist is to provide a safe place for children. This isn’t something that should be compromised. That’s why we work hard with parents to develop that safe place within their own cultural setting.”

Youth court offers restorative justice

The Nome Community Center also sponsors the local Boys & Girls Club, which opened in 2001 in a building that replaced the old native church building on land still owned by United Methodist Women. The club welcomes children of all ages. Chris Steppe, a United Methodist US-2 missionary, spends much of his time there, often taking the kids to the movies or hiking, which at certain times of the year can involve walking out on the sea ice.

Ms. Trigg says the Boys & Girls Club has always offered a safe space for children. When she was growing up it was called the Teen Center.

“I spent a lot of time there in the early ‘90s,” Ms. Trigg said. “It’s where I learned how to play cards and shoot pool. I learned about evolution there and played basketball and Eskimo baseball with my group of friends. There wasn’t a lot for kids to do in the community that was organized. There was nowhere else to just go and be together. The center provided a safe environment, with no pressure to do stuff that kids would pressure you to do, no smoking or drinking.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Trigg had what she called “my fair share of troubled days.” She had a child at age 15, and both the United Methodist Church and the Nome Community Center were vital parts of her support system. The congregation gave her family a crib for her daughter, and a Teen Center staff member met with a group of young mothers two evenings a week, teaching them how to quilt and about nutrition and parenting.

The Nome Community Center also coordinates the city’s Youth Court, which provides an alternative way for youth who’ve been cited for minor violations — like possession of alcohol, breaking curfew or minor theft — to turn their legal offenses into learning opportunities. Judged by a jury of their peers, the youth are usually sentenced to some combination of community service, mandatory alcohol prevention classes at the center and writing letters to those they have offended. Mr. Steppe coordinates the project, which includes training youth volunteers to act as legal counsel and judges.

“It’s a hands-on way of building restorative justice,” Mr. Elmore said. “It helps the kids come to see the damage they’ve caused to their family and the community, and they’re offered a chance to repair some of that damage and become a regular participant in the community. And kids who have gone through this program are much less likely to reoffend.”

Youngsters who complete their Youth Court-prescribed sentence keep their legal record clean so their youthful offenses cannot block them from pursuing educational or career opportunities later in life.

Another focal point of the Nome Community Center’s work with youth is substance abuse prevention efforts, which especially focuses on tobacco. This impacts more than just the youth; all public indoor spaces in the city of Nome were declared smoke-free in 2011 as a result of advocacy by the center.

During the school year, the Nome Community Center staff provides alcohol and tobacco prevention education in all the area schools, beginning with kindergarten.

“The tobacco companies are always posing a threat to kids and the public in general. They want to make money, so they’re making new products, getting around the laws, finding ways to market to children,” said Danielle Sylvester, Nome Community Center’s coordinator for tobacco education in schools. “The trick is to get correct information to children before anyone else gives them misinformation. If the kids have the right information to make the correct decision, they’ll do it on their own.”

Tobacco was not part of traditional native Alaskan culture, but tobacco companies targeted minorities and quickly captured the Alaska native market, Ms. Sylvester said. Now their smoking and lung cancer rates are above the national average.

Ms. Sylvester said educators who traditionally focused on the evils of smoking had to retool their approach as tobacco companies developed smokeless forms of tobacco, including some that look like candy and quickly caught on among children.

“The tobacco companies are constantly coming up with innovative ways to deliver nicotine in subtle ways to whomever they can. They don’t care if they’re of age or not,” said Tara Schmidt, a clean indoor air advocate for Nome Community Center.

Education about the dangers of tobacco don’t get any better than when the Nome Community Center sponsors a “Tobacco Free Camp” every summer, taking dozens of kids to a fishing camp in the forest near Council, 80 miles northeast of Nome. Children and youth get to camp, fish and swim among trees — something absent from the wind-swept tundra around Nome.

“The outdoors is a great environment for the kids to be themselves and a therapeutic place for kids and adults to make sense of things in a natural and simple way,” Ms. Sylvester said. “Some kids have home lives that aren’t easy for them, so bringing them out here gets them in an environment that’s safe, controlled and simple for them to learn in and gets them away from bad influences in town.”

Tobacco education is woven into the schedule, but the fun doesn’t stop. The children produce skits and games and even record video public service announcements about tobacco use that they produce themselves. Much of the education involves simply allowing the children to reflect on the facts, including the true nature of the tobacco companies. One activity this year involved small groups of children coming up with stories based on actual quotes from tobacco company executives, such as U.S. Tobacco’s Bob Beets, who stated, “Cherry Skoal is for somebody who likes the taste of candy, if you know what I mean.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 10/31/2012 11:00:00 PM
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