A candlelight ceremony and a King Islander drum cross, designed as the only one of its kind, led the liturgical celebration honoring the Feast of Christ the King on Saturday, Nov. 19, at St. Anthony Parish in Anchorage. It is one of the first post-COVID-19 gatherings to resume in full after statewide shutdowns.
The Native Mass held each third Saturday of the month is a unique service commemorating the diverse cultures who hail from all parts of the state. This one honored the people of King Island, the ancestors of those parishioners in Anchorage, said Sister Frances “Sr. Frances” Vista, D.C., the director of Catholic Native ministry at the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau.
“We celebrate King Island this month for the Feast of Christ the King — it’s something special and also commemorates the statue put on the island,” Sr. Frances said.
For various reasons, the Inupiat people moved from King Island in 1970 to Nome and other places but keep their unique cultural identity as the King Islanders, said Charles Tiulana, who gave the historical background of the drum cross. The Statue of Christ the King, placed atop King Island Oct. 17, 1937, remains a historic link to the Catholic Church and was featured on the front of the program.
The ceremonial drum cross was designed and created by Freddie Mayac around 2002, after the late Archbishop Francis Hurley suggested creating a special commemoration for King Island, Tiulana said in his background presentation.
For the Nov. 19 service, the members of the King Island community lit candles in memory of those who have passed, especially those of their ancestors who lived in King Island.
“May their visions, hopes and dreams always be remembered and celebrated,” Tiulna said at the service. “We especially remember those who have gone before us this year, who have passed on their culture from generation to generation. May they rest in peace.”
The ceremonial drum cross, representing the different indigenous cultures with separate historic territories in Alaska, led the entrance procession. Inupiaq and Yup’ik songs combined with English parts of the Mass heightened the worship. The celebration ended with a potluck downstairs at St. Anthony’s featuring some traditional foods.
The celebration began with the blessing of the four corners of the earth by using sage for smudging, accompanied by drumming. The members of the King Island community then lit candles in memory of those who have passed.
Drum artist Teddy Mayac describes the many symbolisms of the drum cross: Its four concentric circles are anchored on a cross about 6 feet in height.
“The topmost drum honors the Athabascan Indian nations where Anchorage and the Archdiocese of Anchorage-
Juneau [is] located. The Inupiat and Yupik drums rest on each side of the horizontal segment of the cross. The fourth drum on the lower vertical section is the Aleut drum,” Mayac wrote, reprinted in a church program to accompany the ceremony.
Six eagle feathers hang from the horizontal section of the cross – these are traditionally used for purification rituals, Mayac wrote. “The first wand (or feather) belongs to the Athabascan Indian nations, the second and third wands belong to the Inupiat and Yupik Inuit. The fourth wand acknowledges the Eyak, the Tlingit, the Haida and the Tsimshian Indian nation. The fifth wand belongs to the far-flung Aleut peoples. The sixth wand commemorates our indigenous kinship to the lower 48 Indian nations.”
For this reason, the ceremonial drum cross can be used for a variety of Native services. It was previously kept at Holy Family Cathedral where Archbishop Hurley began Catholic Native ministry. Now the ceremonial drum cross is kept at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.
To keep the drum ritual alive, and what it commemorates year after year, will take the help of more young people stepping up, Sr. Frances said.
“The membership is small and aging. It’s hard to get practice singing the Yupik and Inupiat songs,” Sr. Frances said. “When we started in 2000 or so, that’s 20 years ago and people were much younger in years. We need young members now.”