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The Stringers’ Mission
Isaac Stringer's first visit, in the summer of 1892, to the Inuvialuit village of Kittigazuit was not encouraging. The Inuvialuit initially ordered him away but he managed to stay two weeks before returning to Fort McPherson. Stringer wrote in his diary,
"They had never learned the name of God except as an expression of profanity from the whalers. They did not seem anxious to learn."
Though Stringer felt quite discouraged Archdeacon McDonald and Mr. Firth of the Hudson's Bay Company were impressed with his success, they remarked,
"We had given you two or three days at the most, and we think you have done very well to have stayed two weeks and come away alive."
In the spring of 1893, Stringer made his first visit to Herschel Island. To his surprise, the whaling captains were very receptive to his arrival and readily provided accommodation for him on one of the ships. He spent three weeks with the whalers, visiting, talking, and forging a relationship with them. His presence brought a moral influence to the Island that was welcomed by the captains.
Thus encouraged, Stringer continued to make frequent trips to the north coast. From 1893 to 1897 he divided his time between Herschel Island, the Inuvialuit settlements in the area, and the mission post at Fort McPherson (also known as Peel River).
In the spring of 1897, Isaac and his wife Sadie established an Anglican Church mission on Herschel Island. Stringer's main purpose was to bring Christianity to the Inuvialuit. He began to preach weekly sermons that were interpreted by an Inuvialuit, David Copperfield. Whenever possible he and Sadie would gather the Inuvialuit together to teach them hymns and prayers and instruct them in the Bible. He slowly learned the Inuvialuit language and eventually translated the Lord's Prayer, Grace Before Meat, The Ten Commandments, many texts of scripture, and 20 hymns. Each word was phonetically written into the English alphabet and then when he had enough material in writing he began to teach the native people to read.
Stringer was a very likable, flexible, and tolerant man. He was able to accommodate himself to the Inuvialuit way of life with great patience, but he often found the work slow and at times discouraging. Alcohol and the influence of the medicine man were often obstacles to progress.
Stringer was appalled at the widespread consumption of alcohol and the promiscuity of the native women. Through lengthy negotiations and by threatening to go to the Canadian Government he persuaded 22 of the captains to sign a petition, dated May 11, 1895, to suspend the traffic of liquor to the Inuvialuit. Unfortunately the agreement was short-lived and trade eventually resumed, but on a lesser scale.
Home brewed liquor also posed a problem. An Inuvialuit named Avumnuk had created a concoction he called "Tonga" which "drove men to murder". During one of the periodic food shortages Stringer traded tea and tobacco which Avumnuk coveted, in return for his still. With 20 Inuvialuit watching, Stringer then proceeded to smash the still to pieces with an axe. That was the last they saw of "Tonga" brew.
The Inuvialuit were influenced by the medicine men who became openly hostile when their own remedies and beliefs were rejected by the white man. This struggle between the two cultures came to a head one winter.
A young Inuvialuit, Okpik, gravely ill with pneumonia, was given up for dead by the medicine men. Persuaded by Okpik's brother, the Stringers decided to help and took him into their home. For days he hovered between life and death and the medicine men were quite happy that the white man's medicine was not working. The Stringers knew that if he died in their home the Inuvialuit would never enter again and there would be no hope for a missionary on the Island. They were able to bring the young man back to health and as Stringer wrote "it proved to be the turning point of our career on the Island".
As Sadie also remembered,
"The most fruitful time lived amongst the Eskimos was the latter part of our stay there when all ships had left for the outside for the winter months, and when there was nothing to detract from the good influences and teachings. So I would say the years 1899-1901 were the most profitable amongst the Eskimos as far as religious instruction was concerned. They attended school regularly and genuine progress was made. When Sunday services were held for them every one on the Island would be present, even including babies, sleigh, dogs and all. It was an inspiration to us to see the joy in their faces when some spiritual light would dawn on them."
© Old Log Church Museum 2002