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Orthodox Alaska

The melding of Russian Orthodoxy and Alaska Native culture

Deep in the old-growth forest of Alaska’s Spruce Island, 8-year-old Julian Griggs made the Sign of the Cross before dipping his plastic bottle into the cold spring water. “Umm,” he said after a sip. “That tastes sweet.”

Up the trail, Julian’s parents joined other adults for a three-hour liturgy near the Orthodox church that enshrines the tomb of St. Herman of Alaska. But here in the forest, beside a small wooden shelter of candles and icons, the children were partaking in another Orthodox tradition.

The spring water that Julian was drinking is considered holy. According to local tradition, the spring was discovered by the monk Herman, a starets (or spiritual father in Russian), who came to Alaska from Russia in 1794. Until his discovery of the spring, the island was thought to be without fresh water. Pilgrims credit the spring water with healing a number of medical and spiritual ills.

“It’s really good, even if it’s a little brown,” said Xenia Hoffman, 12. The spring, and all that surrounds it, drew her family to Alaska. They moved here from California last year “because of St. Herman,” she said. “We wanted to be closer to him.”

Each summer, the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of Alaska organizes a pilgrimage to Spruce Island, an hour’s boat ride from the fishing town of Kodiak. Most come from the Alaska Native villages in the Kodiak region, but some come from as far away as Eastern Europe.

St. Herman was not the first Russian to come to Alaska. Legend holds that Russian settlers first established a colony in 1648. And in the early 18th century, Russian explorers and merchants sailed to Alaska by way of a strait (later named for one such explorer, Vitus Bering, who was in fact a Dane in the employ of Peter the Great) separating Asia from North America. They returned with sea otter pelts, which proved very valuable.

Officially, Gregory Shelikhov founded the first Russian-American colony in 1784. Riches, not religion, were in mind; Russian America was a collection of hunting and trading posts.

While there were isolated attempts to Christianize the Alaska Natives, it was not until 1794 that the Russian Orthodox Church, upon Shelikhov’s request, established its first mission. Traveling from their island monastery of Valaam, near Russia’s border with Sweden, Father Herman and other monks reached Kodiak Island on 24 September.

By then, many Alaska Natives were living as slaves, forced to hunt for furs. The Russian traders had broken up families and resettled communities. When Alaska Natives resisted, Russians retaliated by killing many and destroying the hunting gear vital for their survival. Violence and disease claimed 80 percent of the native population of Alaska during the first 40 years of Russian contact.

Into this climate arrived Father Herman and his companions, who did their best to protect the Alaska Natives from mistreatment at the hands of Russian traders. “They are exploiting in every possible way. One must testify about their barbarous treatment of the [Alaska Natives],” Archimandrite Joseph Bolotov, the head of the Kodiak mission, wrote Shelikhov a year after the group’s arrival in Alaska.

Harsh conditions whittled away the original mission band to Father Herman, who eventually set up a hermitage on Spruce Island. There, safe from the harassment of Russian traders, he lived a life of prayer and service to the native community. Father Herman died on 13 December 1837, his tomb and memory revered by the Alaska Natives of the area.

Over the years, greater efforts were made to strengthen the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. Though Alaska’s first bishop, Joseph Bolotov, drowned in a shipwreck in 1799, missionaries continued to pastor the native community. Father John Veniaminov arrived with his wife and family in 1824, settling on the Aleutian island of Unalaska. His travels throughout Alaska, usually by boat, furthered his familiarity with native dialects. Using Cyrillic letters, he constructed an alphabet for the most common dialect, Unagan, and eventually translated biblical and liturgical texts.

While in Russia reporting on the Alaskan missions, Father John learned of his wife’s death. He took monastic vows, taking the name Innocent, and was later consecrated bishop, returning to Alaska and his people. In addition to his studies of Alaska’s native peoples, Bishop Innocent and his colleagues lobbied for the extension of Russian citizenship to Alaska Natives, a few of whom rose high in the ranks of the Russian Navy and other branches of public service. In 1867, Bishop Innocent was elected Metropolitan of Moscow, historically the most important see in the Russian Orthodox Church. He died 12 years later and was canonized in 1977.

This golden age of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska ended with Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Protestant missionaries, not Orthodox priests, received government support in the new territory. But even today — as the annual pilgrimage to Spruce Island attests — there remains a significant Orthodox influence, particularly among Alaska Natives. About 90 percent of the Alaskan diocese’s 30,000 to 60,000 members come from indigenous groups: the Aleuts, Alutiiqs, Athabascans, Tlingits and Yupiks.

On Spruce Island, prayers and blessings are recited in English, Church Slavonic and Yup’ik, the language of Western Alaska’s Yupiks. Some, for example, are specific to Alaska: “The Bering Sea is warmed today. The Arctic night is illuminated. Rivers, islands, tundra and forest lands, mountains, volcanoes and glaciers resound with the hymns of Alaska’s native peoples and of all Orthodox Christians throughout the world.”

The Orthodox Church has always placed a special emphasis on maintaining a harmony between church doctrine and native culture. This is evident in Eklutna, a Tanaina Athabascan Indian village on the outskirts of Anchorage. In the village cemetery, neat rows of traditional “spirit houses” rise above the gravesites. It is said the spirits of the departed reside in these tiny houses, starting 40 days after death. The houses are painted in family colors, and family members occasionally bring offerings of tea and snacks.

But traditional Russian Orthodox three-bar crosses also can be found atop the spirit houses — native and Orthodox conceptions of the afterlife are considered complimentary.

Though there is no active parish at Eklutna, a new church is used for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals and holiday services. The church is painted in red and blue, tribal colors. “If you go to Russia, you won’t find the colors that are here,” said Father Christopher Stanton, an Orthodox priest posted in nearby Wasilla, who helps the diocese manage the Eklutna facilities.

After the purchase of Alaska by the United States, the Alaska Natives’ situation did not improve, said Father Michael Oleksa, an Anchorage-based Orthodox priest and historian. U.S. officials, nearly all Protestant, were bent on “civilizing” and “Christianizing” a heathen land. Never mind the fact that to a large degree they were already literate and Christian.

Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson and his colleague, S. Hall Young, were tasked with this “civilizing” mission. They were suspicious of native culture and Russian Orthodoxy, which in their view and typical of the 19th century, was a muddle of idolatry, strange rituals and linguistic gibberish. They divided the territory into regions where either the Catholic Church or various Protestant denominations would hold sway.

Bringing English to Alaska was another priority, Young wrote in his autobiography. “We should let the old tongues with their superstition and sin die — the sooner the better — and replace the languages with that of Christian civilization, and compel the natives in all our schools to talk English and English only. Thus we would soon have an intelligent people who would be qualified to be Christian citizens.”

The consequence of this approach was the loss of a rich culture. Ceremonial works of art, such as totem poles and intricately woven blankets, were burned.

Among the traditions lost was the potlatch, the ceremonial feast given to honor individuals and give gifts to the community. In 1924, Father Andrew Kashevaroff lamented its passing. “It was a social function and as such far more important than any that the white man has,” he told a local newspaper.

It was no coincidence, Father Michael said, that the largest Russian Orthodox mass baptism in Alaska occurred just after the American takeover. “Given the choice between a form of Christianity and education that denied their culture and one that affirmed it, they chose the one that affirmed it,” he said of the 1894 event in Juneau in which hundreds of Tlingits were baptized into the Orthodox faith.

In recent decades, the Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, like many churches, has been struggling to staff its parishes. In 2001, there were only 16 active priests and 10 deacons serving more than 90 churches and chapels.

With only two students in attendance, the St. Herman Theological Seminary in Kodiak, established in 1972, was on the brink of closing; the seminary had lost its accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools. There was even talk of entrusting the Alaska diocese to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a separate jurisdiction founded by refugees of the Bolshevik Revolution then in schism with much of the Orthodox world.

Since the 2002 appointment of Bishop Nikolai Soraich as Bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska, the Orthodox Church of Alaska has undergone a resurgence. Bishop Nikolai, who served 22 years in Las Vegas and now resides in Anchorage, quickly settled church legal disputes and put the diocese’s finances in order. He also replenished the ranks of the clergy, recruiting men from other jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church in America. There are now 39 active priests, and there are 15 students at the seminary.

“We have more priests and deacons in the diocese than ever in the history of Alaska,” Bishop Nikolai said.

Not all diocesan priests are Alaska Natives. Many are people like Father Michael, from Allentown, Pennsylvania. “When I was four, I wanted to be an Indian chief,” Father Michael said of his early enthusiasm for Native American culture.

As a priest, Father Michael was first posted in small villages in the Alaskan hinterland. He learned the native languages and, prior to his ordination, he married a woman from the village of Kwethluk. He is now a grandfather and part of an extended Yupik family. He has also served on government commissions, where he has been a strong advocate of native Alaskan causes, particularly those involving hunting and fishing rights. “Without traditional means of subsistence, Alaskan natives will die spiritually, emotionally and eventually physically,” Father Michael said.

After his many years in rural Alaska, Father Michael now pastors St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre Orthodox Church, a storefront church in a south Anchorage strip mall. The church is known for its coziness — in contrast to the much more regal atmosphere of Anchorage’s St. Innocent Cathedral, the seat of the diocesan bishop — and also for its linguistic richness. Father Michael and the congregation use native languages as much as possible, and on holidays it is possible to hear a word of Arabic, Finnish, French, Greek and Spanish.

“Father Michael is always saying we have a liturgy like nowhere else in the world because we have such a combination of languages,” said Anastasia Dushkin, a parishioner from the Aleut village of Atka.

Bishop Nikolai has put a special emphasis on seeking out Alaska Native priests. A new recruit is Father Andrew Kashevarof, an Aleut from St. George, who was ordained last year. Before joining the seminary, he had a successful career. But his life was a mess, recalled the priest, the father of six. “There was a lot missing in my life, [even] after I walked away from drugs and alcohol. The church filled the void.”

Alcohol abuse, family disintegration and loss of culture remain troubling issues in Alaska, Bishop Nikolai said. “Many of the issues that St. Innocent wrote about 150 years ago are the same issues I’m dealing with today,” he concluded.

Back on Spruce Island, Mary Haakanson and her daughter, Phyllis, were enjoying a picnic on the beach overlooking Monk’s Lagoon. They live in the nearby Alutiiq village of Old Harbor and have been visiting the island for years. “It’s such a lovely, peaceful place, and the service didn’t seem that long,“ Phyllis said.

Holly Finnan, a visitor from Seattle, said it has been her dream to come to Spruce Island. Brought up as a Seventh-day Adventist, Ms. Finnan embraced Orthodoxy in 1990. “There’s a spirituality here that I think people on the mainland would like to emulate,” she said. “They want it, but it’s here.”

Yereth Rosen has written about Alaska for The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

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