FAIRBANKS — Roll was called for the last time Sept. 22, by “Savakta Ataniqmun” when the Inupiaq singers gathered for a final fall potluck and program, live over KJNP radio.
“Savakta Ataniqmun,” which translates to “Let us work for the Lord” in English, is exactly what the Inupiaq group has been doing for the past four decades — proselytizing and taping a half hour program every Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, and airing it the following Saturday at
9:05 p.m. over KJNP.
For 40 years, listeners across the Arctic and beyond have been tuning in every Saturday night to hear the chorus members sing beloved Christian hymns, read Scripture and share testimony, all in the Inupiaq language.
In the beginning — 1972 — some 45 voices strong gathered together weekly to praise the Lord in song, Bible readings and testimonies, but time has taken its toll.
The original group has dwindled to a few regulars, and by mutual agreement, the remaining women decided to close the weekly program, Janie Snyder said.
From fall through the
Interior’s long, cold winters and into the late spring, the group met every Wednesday evening at First Presbyterian Church to tape the half hour show.
Every fall, they opened the singing season with a potluck and live broadcast at KJNP and closed it the same way in the spring at the cozy, log-walled KJNP Mission broadcast studio.
The final bittersweet evening drew approximately 50 people, including some former singers and lots of well-wishers to thank the group for their long-term loyalty.
As usual, the potluck table was overflowing with food, including muktuk, salmonberry/blueberry pie, potato salad and baked salmon.
Although the program regularly lasts only 25 minutes, it is commonly called the “Eskimo Hour” by many of its listeners, said Mable Hopson, one of the original singers. The final broadcast did last for an hour.
The program was spoken primarily in Inupiaq, opening as always with “When the roll is called up yonder” and concluding with “God be with you till we meet again.”
James Nageak provided accompaniment on the guitar. Music sheets were handed out, and many in the assembly joined in singing.
A few extra songs were sung on the final night, Scripture was read and some testimony given.
Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Curt Karns, now of Anchorage, sent a special message to the group, that was read aloud in English.
Karns often participated in the program in the 1970s when he was a lay preacher at First Presbyterian.
“I remember the eagerness with which people volunteered to share their faith and their songs. But I also remember the laughter and the fun,” he wrote. “There was always so much joking and so much play.”
“That is the nature of Christian fellowship and Christian work. It can all be joy, and I learned that so well from participating in the Eskimo Hour recordings.”
Don Thibedeau, who works at Denali Center, calls the Eskimo Hour “a blessing.”
“I’ve been listening to it for 40 years,” he said. “It’s been 40 years since I came to the Lord.”
Hopson, 81, said she has heard from reindeer herders living in a northern Canadian village who feed the animals early on Saturday evenings so they can be home in time to listen to the program.
Elizabeth Frantz, 82, another original member, recalled a story from a Barrow man who was out trapping fox when a strong wind storm caused a whiteout. He circled his dogs round, set up camp and took out his portable radio to listen to the Eskimo Hour.
“He said he was kind of scared because he didn’t know quite now where he was,” Frantz said.
“But when I was opening up the program, the first thing I said was, ‘This is for the campers, hunters and trappers; this is going to be for you tonight,’ and he said he felt happy to hear it and felt it was for him.”
Snyder, Hopson and Frantz, three original members of the group, have been supported till the end by Ruth Biden and Dora Foyle.
It was a hard decision to close out Savakta Ataniqmun, said Snyder, recalling her reluctance to propose the notion to the other members.
Savakta Ataniqmun isn’t entirely over, though, since KJNP will be airing previous Eskimo Hour tapes regularly, Snyder said.
And the longtime members of the group will continue to get together to celebrate each other’s birthdays and sing for special occasions.
Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.