Carving out his role


Carving out his role 
Some of the ivory carved by Walter
"Alook" Savetilik, a Churchwide Assembly
voting member from Alaska.

By Lisa Smith Fiegel

The 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, held in August in Orlando, Fla., was a "real eye opener" for Walter "Alook" Savetilik, a member of Alaska Native Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Anchorage, Alaska.

At the assembly he realized that his home congregation "wouldn't be a church without the ELCA. There's more to it than just us."

Walter, who goes by his Eskimo name Alook, which means "let's go home together," had little time to prepare for the assembly, his first, and his first trip to Orlando from his Anchorage home. The ELCA Alaska Synod elects one Alaska Native as a voting member for each assembly. When the original person elected couldn't attend, Alook was nominated and received word from the synod office in July.

With barely one month to prepare for the assembly, Alook studied his assembly materials in between his daily routine of fishing and ivory carving. He discovered that the assembly would "be a really good" experience for him. And, it was.

The Churchwide Assembly is the ELCA's chief legislative authority. Voting members are elected by their synods and gather every two years to make important decisions about this church. The next assembly will convene August 12-18, 2013, in Pittsburgh.

Alook, for instance, learned about the ELCA Malaria Campaign and why "it's an important initiative for this church," he says. Along with his decision-making experiences at the assembly, Alook says he enjoyed visiting with American Indian voting members or "people from the reservation," in particular. "I enjoyed sharing stories and learning more about their backgrounds."

Passing on cultural traditions

Alook was born in Teller, an Alaskan Inupiat Eskimo village about 70 miles west of Nome. He was raised mostly in Anchorage and attended the Alaska Native Lutheran Church. He spent summers hiking, swimming, playing games and studying the Bible at the Salmon Lake Bible Camp outside of Nome, run by local ELCA leaders.

As a child, Alook learned from his elders how to carve ivory from walrus tusk, make drums and engage in subsistence fishing and hunting. He still hunts moose, seal, ptarmigan an Alaskan bird and walrus when he has the opportunity, and fishes each summer for red salmon.

His grandfather, Edward, taught him how to carve ivory into figurines and jewelry, which Alook now sells in local gift shops and by special order. Carving is connected to his faith and spirituality, Alook says. "When I'm carving, I'm by myself. It's meditation for me."

Alook also makes drums and participates in traditional Eskimo dancing. He practices weekly and has competed at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics and has performed in numerous venues. "It's been in our family for a long time," he says of the dancing and drumming. "It feels really good."

Though he says he's been fortunate to learn traditional ways from his elders, Alook says he's worried about the next generation of Alaska Natives. "It's important to have kids involved in their culture," Alook says. He's teaching his wife's three children about things like fishing and carving. Some Alaska Native youth don't learn about their culture, he says, or they get distracted by modern technology or alcohol abuse.

Alook knows where that road can lead. He spent five years in prisons in Arizona and California after an attempted armed robbery. He says alcohol played a part in his incarceration. After he returned to Anchorage in 2007, he was determined to get his life back on track. He resumed hunting, fishing and carving, keeping the traditional practice of sharing the food with his elders. "I devote myself to my elders," Alook says. "They were there for me growing up, so I want to be there for them."

Alook also reconnected with the Alaska Native Lutheran Church, attending worship and helping at potlucks and activities. "As long as I'm in church, it helps me stay out of trouble," he says. In 2010, he was elected to the congregation's council, which he enjoys.

Attending the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly has expanded Alook's knowledge of the wider church. "It will help me in my role on the congregation's council, since we're calling a new pastor."

"There's a lot of responsibility serving the church," says Alook. "A lot of people look up to you to make changes for the better."

Lisa Smith Fiegel is the associate pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Anchorage, Alaska.

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