David Salmon: First Athabascan Episcopal priest

The Rev. David Salmon, first traditional chief of the Athabascan people, Episcopal priest, and a widely respected spiritual leader, was buried Monday near his home in Chalkyitsik, Alaska.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports:

Hundreds of mourners flew to the small Interior community from villages and towns around the state to pay their respects to Salmon. A dozen white-gowned Episcopal ministers gave final blessings after Salmon’s handmade wooden coffin was lowered into the ground.

Salmon was an ordained Episcopal minister and had been the Interior’s first traditional chief since 2003. The position is an honorary, nonpolitical office and is held in high esteem.

“He was a very humble, humble individual. He was a very giving man,” said Steve Ginnis, former Tanana Chiefs president. “He wanted no fanfare, recognition or praise but to have us praise the Lord.”

Doyon President Orie Williams said Salmon was one of the most spiritual men he ever met and was never critical.

“He never brought negativity with him. He was always positive. You could never go to school enough years to know what this man knew,” Williams said. “He was truly an Indian chief long before people called him one.”

The Rev. Scott Fisher, Rector of St. Matthew’s, Fairbanks attended the ceremony and tells some of the history of The Rev. David Salmon and Bishop Gordon and the connection to the passage of what was Title III, Canon 9.

Back last night from Chalkyitsik, a little village 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about 200 miles northeast of Fairbanks. I was up there for the funeral/burial of the Rev. David Salmon, who died there at home last Thursday. David was 95 years old and the Traditional First Chief of the entire Interior region of Alaska. And an amazing guy. He was a link to very very Old Stories & tradition. He could remember stories from his Grandfather of when the first missionaries (Anglican missionaries traveling with the Hudson Bay Company in 1849) arrived in the country (people here were startled by the whiteness of the pages in the prayer book).

In his own way, he changed the entire structure of the Episcopal Church. In the 1950s the then priest in Fort Yukon (Walter Hannum) told then Bishop Gordon “I’ve got a man up here that needs to be ordained”. The Bishop told him “There’s no way to do it under current canons unless he goes to a Seminary”. Walter said, “Okay, I’ll start a seminary” and began a training program that led to David being ordained in 1962, the first Athabascan ordained to the priesthood (there had been previous deacons earlier in the century). Simultaneously the Bishop started working to change the national canons – leading eventually to Canon 9 ordinations etc. That’s my rough understanding of the story. Anyone ordained these days who didn’t go to Seminary owe their path in some sense to David.

Here’s a David story. early in the 60s one of the Baptist missionaries was giving David a hard time about infant baptism versus baptism by immersion. In reply David reminded him about the woman who touches only the hem of Our Lord’s garment and is healed.”Every drop of water is Jesus”, he concluded.

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