LIGHT to the ESKIMOS
During July in Alaska, the sun only takes a couple of hours rest each day.
One might think Alaskans don’t need any more light during the summer, yet a local couple was able to take some of the light of Jesus Christ to the 2013 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics anyway.
Pastor Eric and Sherri Hartshaw, of the Montoursville Brethren in Christ Church, were among a group of 10 volunteers from LightShine Ministries who worked at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), held annually in Fairbanks, Alaska.
LightShine has worked in Alaska since 1995, serving the state with a “pipeline of people” from the lower 48.
“Most of their mission trips are short-term, a week or two, and most of them are construction work,” Eric said.
The Hartshaws became involved with LightShine through Carl and Eunice Ginder, of Manheim, who stop in at their church when visiting their cabin along Route 87.
The Ginders told them about WEIO, “which ends up being the yearly gathering for the indigenous peoples of Alaska,” Eric said. “The board is all Eskimos and Indians. This year for the first time, the chairperson of WEIO asked Scott Smith, head of Youth With a Mission, in Homer, if they had a group of people who could come and work it.”
Another 10 people from Youth With a Mission volunteered at the games. They stayed in the dorms at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and set up the Carlson Convention Center for the four days of WEIO.
“We spent a whole day setting the convention center up,” Sherri said. “We were cleaning stadium seating, washing the chairs, putting down carpeting, because it’s an ice rink, and taping it into place.”
The WEIO events all have to do in some way with survival, though some of them might just look painful – like the ear pull, when two contestants wrap a sinew around their respective ears and pull, and the ear weights, which have 16 pounds on the end.
“You’re putting up with extreme pain, which when you’re dealing with frostbite or something like that in your extremities is where you get hit,” Eric said. “You have to tolerate that pain and push through. The four-man carry – they had to carry 600 pounds of other people as far as they could – that has to do with could you get the moose out of the wilderness that you shot.”
Some events take some explanation to figure out how they do relate to an in-the-wild survival skill.
“The Eskimo stick pull, it’s tapered at both ends, and slimed up with Crisco,” Sherri said. “Two people stand side-by-side with a hand on either end of stick, twist their body and keep their feet stationary. It shows how you keep a hold on fish if you’re pulling it out of the ice.”
Seal skinning is another event, with limited participants, that shows how highly the first Alaskan peoples value their elders, Eric says.
“They ask if there are any elders who want to participate in the seal skinning contest. If they get more than four, they go from the eldest elder on down. Elders are very highly respected. They have a specific elder room set aside, a quiet place, if they wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle, with food and drink provided. If an elder asked you to do anything, you try to do it the best you could.”
Eric helped an elder change her headlight, and Sherri was handed a phone by an elder woman and asked to “call Peter.”
“It’s a contrast to our culture, where after you’ve served your usefulness you’re kind of forgotten,” Sherri said. “It kind of rubbed off on you.”
The natives’ more relaxed attitude toward the clock also impressed the Hartshaws.
“They don’t care about time like we do here,” Sherri said. “Registration started at 9 and people would kind of drift in. The day would be over when events were over. People were in no rush.”
“The earliest I got out of there was midnight,” Eric said. “You’d walk outside and it was pure daylight out, and I thought it was time to go get supper.”
During the games, Sherri worked the registration booths and Eric sold T-shirts and did other sundry tasks to help keep everything running.
Eric did give “muktuk,” or whale blubber, a try, but the most important takeaway from the Hartshaws’ trip wasn’t the food or the games – it was the new people they met.
“Indigenous people are trying to live in two worlds,” Eric said. “They have to drive cars, and they’re trying to hold onto traditions. Where does faith, where do beliefs come in? Where is my foundation in this?”
“Missionary work in the past, they’d often go in and try to change people to be like them,” Sherri said. “Children were taken away and sent to the white man’s school. We’re trying to share the love of God within their culture, not erase their culture.”
“We want to build this relationship to show people what it is, to put faith and the love of God for us into terms that they understand,” Eric said. “One example I use a lot is it’s like jumping into a river: you allow the love of God to carry you, the current to flow. There’s going to be some rapids, some eddies, you’ll get caught in once in a while, but sooner or later you’ll end up in the ocean of God’s love.”
“A lot of people go to Alaska to escape things,” Sherri said. “We want to introduce them to the relationship they can have with their Creator. Not to invite them into religion, but to build a relationship with them, show they can learn how to have a relationship with God.”