Learning to survive

On Sunday afternoon the House of Bishops and our spouses were invited to a Potlatch in Nenana, a town about an hour outside of Fairbanks. The Potlatch was held to honor our visit by the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Nenana and the native people of the forty plus villages found in the interior of Alaska. Most of the folks in the lodge were Episcopalian, most were native people, but because everyone in the area was invited, it was a mixture of folk that welcomed us.

I sat across from a man in his mid-eighties who spent the afternoon gently teasing me and the bishops sitting with me while helping us navigate the customs and the unfamiliar food. He showed me how to get the marrow out of the moose bones. He showed me where the seasoning packets were for the Moose-head soup. He warned me not to eat the fish ice-cream. He had some tall tales to share too – and kept laughing at us when we fell for them.

In my conversations with folks afterwards, there lots of people like him in the room, welcoming us into their community, telling us stories and enjoying the warmth and the laughter of the gathered community. It was a moving experience of community – a community that was defining itself by acts of generosity and welcoming. It was a day filled with extravagant gestures. My guide that day told me that the hosts had been up since 3 AM that day cooking the soup and preparing the meat. He said the man who shot the moose we shared had taken a small fat one. Which was good because apparently that sort of moose tasted better than a big one.

What struck me was what he said next. The man who took the moose could have fed his entire family all through the winter with that food. But instead of giving it to his family, he gave it to the visiting strangers and anyone else in the community who came inside.

Which sort of puts most of our normal acts of hospitality in the lower 48 into perspective. We are generous, but we’re not generous that way. And I’ve grumbled occasionally when I think folks who are just coming for the meal are taking advantage of a community’s hospitality without giving anything in return. (I’m not proud of that, but I recognize that in myself and after this experience in Alaska, I see it in bold distinction with the lavish welcome we received from the native people. Perhaps I can learn to be more like them more often in my own life.)

At the end of the meal and its many courses, after the chiefs who were present who wished to speak had done so, and after the Presiding Bishop had spoken on our behalf, we were presented with necklaces from the village. The young people had made them for us as sign of their desire to honor us and to thank us for visiting.

(I had dinner with a local High School teacher the next evening in Fairbanks. I asked him if the giving of the necklaces by that community was significant. He nodded his head in a silent yes.)

I leave Alaska with memories and that necklace. I pray that it will be a reminder to me of a different way of being community – one that truly and extravagantly welcomes the visitor and the pilgrim. One that literally competes with its neighbors to honor the strangers in their midst. I can understand why a people who live a hard subsistence life in a forbidding place developed that sort of custom. Their ability to survive the winters depended on their being able to rely on each other.

But I’m reminded too of how important it is for us who have more resources and live in less challenging places to learn this lesson. Because there often come moments when we need to depend on each other – and more often than not these days, we don’t even know our neighbor’s names much less shared meals with them in the town halls…

Maybe this is a different way of being a “prep-per” – the sort of person who prepares for natural disasters or emergencies by laying in stocks and weapons. The Alaskan way does that – but also lays in acts of friendship and community so as to build a community that can withstand the sorts of disaster events we all fear.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...