LDS couple finds niche among ‘frozen chosen’ on Alaskan isle

When Gordon Thompson accepted employment on a small island (11 by 24 miles) off the coast from Ketchikan – a federal reservation inhabited primarily by Tsimpshiam Indians – he expected to enjoy his two-year stay. Obviously, he did – that was 14 years ago and he is still here.

What he didn't expect in the land of soaring eagles, northern lights and fierce-looking totem poles was total contentment. He met and married the woman of his dreams and became reactivated in the Church. Together, he and his wife have become a source of strength for both Church and community.With a permanent twinkle in his eyes, Thompson said, "Nowadays, I find it really hard to complain about anything at all."

Life is different in Alaska; the pace is slower. "I like the small-town atmosphere where people wave as they pass," Thompson said. "Everybody knows everybody else and you can't afford to have enemies. You might need help the next day."

Fishing is the main industry in Metlakatla. The tribal council operates a large modern cannery to preserve the summer's catch, and most homes have a smoke house in the back yard. The run of salmon this year has been greater than for the past 98 years.

Born and raised in Scipio, Utah, Thompson pursued doctorate studies in economics at the University of Utah, and then worked with the Indian Commission in economic development. He traveled back and forth from Washington, D.C., to Metlakatla, where he was intrigued with the feel of the "last frontier."

Later, he worked out of Seattle, Wash., still in economics planning and still working with Indians, and occasionally visiting the island. "I guess I decided to move to Metlakatla to see why nobody followed my advice," he said with a laugh.

Fifteen months later he married his wife, Karen, who is of Tsimpshiam, Eskimo and German ancestry, and he became a stepfather to Jim, who was then 9, and Bonna, then 8. His tie with the children was so strong that Bonna was the first to suggest the marriage.

When Thompson's mother visited their home, Karen insisted on taking her mother-in-law to Church. The tiny branch was affiliated with the Ketchikan Branch, but members met in a house on the island. Karen belonged to another denomination with services at the same hour. The LDS group offered to switch to Sunday afternoon, and for several months thereafter the Thompsons attended both churches.

A year later, Karen was baptized into the Church in a font 4 feet high, made of planks lined with plastic. The font was constructed in a garage; a hose running from the kitchen sink filled the font with water.

Sister Thompson relinquished a lifelong dream when she chose to be baptized. A gifted organist, she had prepared since childhood to play for her congregation's annual production of Handel's Messiah, working up by steps from accompanist for the junior to the senior choir with its 60 talented members. Through years of practice she had known nothing about the Latter-day Saints, except that her group sang Tabernacle Choir arrangements.

"The minister told me I could no longer play for the Messiah," Sister Thompson said. "He said my presence amounted to ministering for the Mormon Church." She was crushed. "Still, I went ahead and was baptized, and I didn't regret my decision."

Happily, the choir soon changed to community sponsorship, and Sister Thompson resumed her seat at the organ.

Meanwhile, her husband was called as branch president and the Metlakatla Branch took steps to build its own meetinghouse. Members, now 45 strong, held bake sales to raise money.

The completed LDS meetinghouse is unique – it's the only brick structure on the island.

In spite of living in idyllic surroundings, islanders encounter some great problems, including high rates of alcoholism and suicide, possibly because of forced inactivity during dark winter months. Frequently, the weather is foggy, or gusty winds blow up to 100 miles an hour. The only way off the island is by sea plane or by a ferry, which doesn't run often. With no movie house in the community, islanders rely on crafts, television or walks as their main sources of recreation.

The Thompsons credit the programs of the Church with bringing their children through the difficult teenage years without serious problems. Both parents are much involved in community counseling and regularly open their home to those in distress.

Thompson has been released as branch president and is now teaching a family history class. He hopes eventually to put the entire population of Metlakatla on group sheets.

He was director of natural resources and is now business manager for Metlakatla Power and Light. Both Brother and Sister Thompson have been elected to the school board, and both spend considerable time upgrading cultural arts for the island's young people.

Gordon Thompson has found his niche. With a chuckle, he said, "I am convinced that I am truly in the land of the Lord's `frozen chosen.' "