For much of her 75 years, Mary Teya has been a voice for the church and for people in her home community of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and far beyond.
Teya grew up in a large Gwich’in family and spent her early years learning traditional ways and skills from her parents, who, for most of the year, lived out on the land at a fishing camp about 50 miles up the Peel River from Fort McPherson. Her parents and grandparents taught traditional values such as respect for all people, especially elders. They also devoted time to teaching their children about God. “When we were alone or if another family or two was staying with us, [my dad] would take on the Sunday services, and he prayed with us and sang hymns with us and taught us from the Bible.”
When she was nine years old, Teya and her younger sister went to a residential school in Aklavik, N.W.T. Though she encountered some prejudice among the staff, Teya also found some positive role models at the school. “I saw so many of the staff that were really strong in their faith…and I used to think, ‘One day, I want to be like them.’ “
Unfortunately, there were also bullies at the school, and though she wanted to continue studying, she spent the summer when she was 15 convincing her father to let her leave school and go back out on the land with her family.
Teya married when she was 18, and she and her husband lived on the land until 1968 when they moved into Fort McPherson and she began working as a housekeeper in a residence for nurses. She interpreted between Gwich’in and English for the doctors and nurses. Eventually, she became a liaison with the community, and after some training at Fort Smith became a community health representative, which she continued to do until she retired in 1996. She also helped with interpreting in many other meetings and contexts over the years, including at the local Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. She’s a member of the elders’ council, locally and regionally.
Teya has been a volunteer with the community radio station for many years as well. She has hosted a health awareness program and an entertainment program that included information about what was going on in the community to help people stay in touch, especially when they were out on the land. Another program told “old time stories and legends.”
Throughout those years, Teya was also busy with a non-stipendiary ministry in the church. She and Hannah Alexie became lay leaders, and in 2000 were ordained as deacons. They now serve as a part of a ministry team with lay leaders Joanne Snowshoe and Rebecca Blake in a growing congregation at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church.
Arctic diocesan Bishop David Parsons described Teya as a soft-spoken, gentle woman who is also “super strong” and “highly respected,” not only in Fort McPherson but in places such as Aklavik and Tuktoyuktuk, where she travels to do weddings and funerals.
Blake credits Teya for blazing a path in ministry. “She has opened it up for someone like myself, a younger person, female, to walk in her footsteps,” she said. “She has taught me invaluable things that I could never learn anywhere else.”