Rev. Bella Jean Savino is the inheritor of a Gwich’in tradition of both spirituality and literacy that goes back over 150 years.
The 68-year-old Savino is an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church, and a member of the Gwichyaa Gwich’in of the Fort Yukon area in Alaska.
Savino’s grandfather, the Rev. James Gilbert, was also an ordained minister who presided over services in Tukudh, the older written form of the Gwich’in language.
It was developed in the 1860s through a collaboration between a Church of England missionary named Robert McDonald and Gwich’in speakers in the N.W.T. and Alaska.
Thanks to McDonald and his hard-working team of translators, the first written form of Gwich’in is preserved in the Tukudh version of the Bible as well as in traditional prayers and hymn books that are still used in Gwich’in communities.
Savino remembers those Tukudh services from her childhood in Arctic Village. “I always enjoyed church when I was growing up. Everyone went to church, nobody stayed home, and it was all done in Gwich’in - songs, prayers, going to Sunday school. I used to love it.
“I remember them singing in the church. I thought, wow, they sound really good. Just hearing all of them sing out from their hearts - it really touched me.”
But it took a lifetime for her to make the journey from her Alaskan childhood to her role today as a Christian minister.
Savino was born prematurely on the banks of the Porcupine River in the spring of 1945. “My parents stopped the boat and pitched the tent,” she explains. “They didn’t think I was going to make it, and then I got pneumonia. But God had other plans for me.”
Her father, David Francis, died when she was three and the family moved from Arctic Village to Fort Yukon, where she attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs school for native students. Despite the fact that Savino spoke only Gwich’in, and had to learn English at a time when students were punished for speaking their language, she became valedictorian of her high school class.
After high school she was sent to Chicago by the BIA to take secretarial courses. “We got an orientation in Seattle for two weeks, showing us how to get around using the buses. They dropped us off somewhere in Seattle and we had to find our way back to where we were staying.”
Savino later married a member of the Shoshone people and moved to Wyoming, where she learned how to brand calves and ride a horse on her husband’s ranch.
Still, her love for her Episcopal heritage remained. “There was a little Episcopal church on the reservation, and I really wanted to help by reading as a lay reader. I was nervous the first time. My knees were knocking. Then I saw my kids sitting there. My son’s face was glowing.”
In 1993, after Savino’s marriage ended, she moved back to Alaska and worked at a medical centre in Fairbanks. “One of the priests from Arctic Village was staying there with his son, because he was ill. A friend and I took communion to him. We were praying for him, and when we finished, he said to me in Gwich’in, ‘Think about it.’ I just knew what he meant.”
In high school Savino had wanted to become a missionary. “I always knew,” she says, “that there was a need to do something. I just didn’t know what it was until later on.” But she remembers a sermon of her grandfather’s in which he emphasized the need to make choices in life. “He said, ‘You’re going down the road, and off to the side of the road there’s people having fun and drinking, and you have to make a choice about which path to take. It’s up to you.’ It always comes back to me. I had to make that choice in my life about what I wanted to do.”
The comment by the priest from Arctic Village prompted Savino to become a lay reader at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. In 2002 she became a deacon, and last year, after a four-year program of studies, she was ordained as a minister.
St. Matthew’s doesn’t offer entire services in Gwich’in, but Savino recites the Lord’s Prayer in her language, and twice a month leads evening sessions of Gwich’in hymns, known as chilig. “We try to sing chilig at funerals, too.”
Savino also attends Gwich’in literacy sessions at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse, where Gwich’in people from across the North gather to study their language and their tradition of literacy, including the original Tukudh texts.
William Firth, director of language programs for the N.W.T.‘s Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, points out that this tradition of literacy using spiritual texts connects today’s Gwich’in with their parents and grandparents, many of whom learned to read and write using the books produced by McDonald and his translators.
“Archdeacon McDonald did a lot of work with the elders in our community, and yet their great-grandchildren aren’t aware of it,” he says.
But Firth, who at 45 is part of a younger generation of Gwich’in speakers, finds that reading the Tukudh texts is a real challenge, in part because the language itself has changed since McDonald first wrote it down.
He learned to read his native language from the modern writing system developed in the 1970s by linguist John Ritter - today the director of the Yukon Native Language Centre - to reflect the changes that had occurred in the language since McDonald’s time.
So why is Firth interested in studying a form of the language that no-one today fully understands?
“There’s so much history, so much richness there. There was so much work involved when Archdeacon McDonald worked with our people, and yet many of us don’t realize that.”
The question of why today’s Gwich’in are interested in preserving texts from a religious tradition that many might feel was imposed on them is a delicate one, but Firth has a ready answer.
“I see it as a completely separate issue from the residential school situation. That was way after Archdeacon McDonald. To me, studying Tukudh is a way to heal the wounds of those years. It connects us with the ancestors.”
McDonald himself, who was born in Manitoba’s Red River Colony, had an Ojibwa grandmother and married a Gwich’in woman from Fort McPherson, Julia Kutug, who became a close collaborator in his translating activity.
As for Savino, “I’m just thankful for all the people who helped me and gave me encouragement, especially with the language,” she says. “I’m learning more and more each time I come to the language centre. So coming here is a blessing.” She particularly loves learning more about the old hymns and their tunes, which are shared by elders from around the north.
Savino’s mother, Myra Francis, was present when Savino was ordained in March of 2012, a fact for which Savino is very grateful. Her mother was subsequently diagnosed with cancer and died last December. “She was just smiling,” Savino says, remembering her mother at the ordination service. “She was happy.”
This article was prepared by the Yukon Native Language Centre.