The Kutchin became Christianized by their own choice, at a time when they were strong people. They took the basic Christian faith and made it their own, including their own value system and remythologized ancient legends. With their own ordained clergy, Christianity became theirs, and that faith is still here.
Lee Sax, in Sax & Linklater, Gikhyi, 1990.
In 1858, the first Anglican missionaries travelled to the western Arctic seeking to minister to the aboriginal population. With the help of the largely Protestant Hudson’s Bay Company traders, the Church won a great number of people to Anglicanism. Their success was due in large part to Reverend Robert McDonald. Along with his Gwich’in wife, Julia Kutug, he travelled throughout the north Yukon, learned the local language, trained First Nations catechists, and translated the Bible, prayer book and hymnal into Gwich’in so the people could worship in their own language. The people he trained also travelled extensively, carrying and reinforcing the church’s message. The “native catechists” became a strong force in the north, maintaining the presence of the church when no ministers were available.
The first church in Vuntut Gwitchin territory was at Rampart House, on the Yukon-Alaska border, 80 km down the Porcupine River from present-day Old Crow. A growing First Nations population was attracted by the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post built in 1890 and, when the HBCo left, by other traders at the site. While missionaries visited Rampart House regularly, it was only in 1918 that St. Luke’s Church was built.
People began to drift away from Rampart House in the early 1920s. Other posts offered better prices for furs and goods. Following a suspected smallpox epidemic and the loss of their homes, the Gwich’in began moving to Old Crow where another store had been built. Upon the recommendation of Reverend Moody, the church followed in 1921 after most of the population had already relocated. A new residence was built in Old Crow for Reverend Moody, where he also held services and taught school. This became known as the Archdeacon McDonald Memorial Church.
In 1959, just a few years prior to the Exhams' arrival in Old Crow, the new St. Luke’s church was built. As lumber was hard to come by and expensive to import, the “new” church was also built of log and retained a rustic appearance.
The Anglican Church was important to the lives of the Old Crow people. All but three members of the community were Anglican during the Exham’s’ time in Old Crow. There were three services on Sundays. The Women's Auxiliary was one of the moving forces in Old Crow, with many of the community’s most prominent artists and important women making up its membership.
Thomas Henry Canham was another missionary who took well to the north. He spent time at Rampart House from 1888–91. Like McDonald and Bompas, Reverend Canham was a keen linguist who learned the languages of his congregation and tried to understand their culture. He was made Archdeacon of the Yukon Diocese from 1892 – 1924 and is known for his translations of Tutchone, the language of the people of the southern half of the Yukon
YA, Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives fonds, 89/41, #1962
Group pose by St. Luke’s Church, Rampart House during the
wedding of Ben Kassi. Deacon Amos Njootli and Archdeacon Canham are two of the clergy.
YA, University of Alaska Archives, #3057.