Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska – Ashton Freeman

Flag of the Russian-American Company (Alaska) by NuclearVacuum

Flag of the Russian-American Company (Alaska) by NuclearVacuum

Before the Russian colonial era, the coastal Alaska Native communities had a complex and spiritual connection to their environment. Their cultural practices and social systems were shaped by the challenges of their local environment and their traditional values, which created a harmonious interaction with all spirits of nature. However, for many Native communities, nearly everything they knew had been altered due to Russian contact; starting with the first contact made by Captain Commander Vitus Bering with his discovery of the Aleutian Islands by 1741.

Марка СССР By Post of USSR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Марка СССР – Russian Stamp depicting Berin’g Voyages.

As early as the 18th century, the Russian Empire took great interest in the seal and otter population with the goal of harvesting the pelts, which the Unangan and Sugpiaq people had been skillfully harvesting for many generations. The Russian’s had a cunning drive to gain power and wealth, which lead the Russian Empire to send traders, promyshlenniki, and settlers to take advantage of the Native people and new land for their own economic and political benefit. The fur traders had entered many coastal communities and forced local people to harvest sea mammal pelts for them. As part of the struggle between the Russian traders, who exploited the Alaska Native population, and the Russian Orthodox monks and priests, who first arrived in Alaska in 1794 and worked to curb this exploitation, local people responded in a variety of ways to the Russia colonial enterprise. In many cases, the Alaska Natives people had converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and became an employ of the Russia American Company. However, some communities did not find the Russian colonial establishment of interest and were also able to resist the spread of the Russian influence.

Vitus Bering Literatur: Svend E. Albrethsen, Vitus Bering's second Kamchatka expedition – the journey to America and archaeological excavations on Bering Island

Vitus Bering
Literatur: Svend E. Albrethsen, Vitus Bering’s second Kamchatka expedition – the journey to America and archaeological excavations on Bering Island

Battles between Russians and the Alaska Native peoples happened mostly in the late 18th and 19th century, such as the massacre of Alutiiq people at Refuge Rock on Kodiak, the Battle of Kenai between Russians and Dena’ina, and the battle of Sitka between the Tlingit and Russians. Due to the social structure of the 19th century Russian, the Russian population never exceeded between 500 and 800 people in Alaska. For the reason, Russians heavily relied on the Alaska Native groups to hunt for them. These Alaska Native people were of the Unangan, Sugpiaq-Alutiiq, Yup’ik, Tlingit and the Dena’ina groups. Furthermore, it was in the Russian colonial power’s interest to encourage people not to change their everyday life beyond converting to Russian Orthodoxy, learning to speak Russian, and working for the Russian American Company. Having said that, the unequal influence of relations embedded in colonialism did result in both, cultural loss and change of the Alaska Native social life and its structure. For some Native people, the conversion to Russian Orthodoxy was not difficult and sometimes it was even desirable. These people found a way to harmonize both cultural traditions and remain true to their own identity.

Edouard de Stoeckl and William H. Seward in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Edouard de Stoeckl and William H. Seward

By 1896, the Russian Empire could no longer maintain their hold on “Russian America” due to economic reasons and the war going on in Europe, and they sold it to the United States. However, the Church still remained in the newly named state of Alaska, along with the some of the early Russian settlers, who had an established home and family. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church still remains a large influence in many coastal communities. With the new colonialism of the US, came a new idea that allowed individuals the choice of religious beliefs. For many communities around Alaska, they had developed a complex relationship between precolonial traditional practices and the Russian Orthodox practices. Additionally, this relationship has created an Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox practice that has continued for many generations after Russian colonial contact. The National Park Service, Russian Orthodox Church, and the State of Alaska work together in preserving many historical buildings in throughout Alaska; such as the Russian Bishop House and Building No. 29 in Sitka, the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church in Kenai, and the Russian America Company Magazin located in Kodiak. With this partnership, the history is alive and can be shared to others.

Inscription is in English & Greek, as the icon is intended as a gift to the Kykkos Monastery in Cyprus. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Inscription is in English & Greek, as the icon is intended as a gift to the Kykkos Monastery in Cyprus. By Paul Drozdowski

Bibliography

Below, I have organized my sources by category (video, website, book) to help further individual research.

Videos:

“Journey into Orthodox Alaska.” YouTube. Accessed December 4, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GseuuXrGQoY

“Sitka’s New Russian Orthodox Bishop.” YouTube. Accessed December 4, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdKlwCRSet0.

 

Websites:

United States. National Park Service. “National Park Service: Russian America Theme National Historic Landmarks (Table of Contents).” National Parks Service. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/nhl/russian-america/contents.htm.

Loughlin, Wendi. “A 17th-Century Russian Community Living in 21st-Century Alaska.” The Atlantic. May 1, 2013. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/a-17th-century-russian-community-living-in-21st-century-alaska/275440/.

“LitSite Alaska | Russian America Russian Orthodox Church: Russia’s Alaskan Legacy.” LitSite Alaska | Russian America Russian Orthodox Church: Russia’s Alaskan Legacy Russian Orthodox Church: Russia’s Alaskan Legacy. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.litsite.org/index.cfm?section=Timeline&page=Russian-America&cat=Russian-Orthodox-Church:-Russia’s-Alaskan-Legacy&viewpost=2&ContentId=2847.

“In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan CulturesConversion to Christianity.” Conversion to Christianity. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/russian/russch4.html.

“Alaska History and Cultural Studies – Alaska’s Cultures – Alaska Natives Fight for Civil Rights – Paul Ongtooguk.” Alaska History and Cultural Studies – Alaska’s Cultures – Alaska Natives Fight for Civil Rights – Paul Ongtooguk. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.akhistorycourse.org/articles/article.php?artID=472.

“Alaska History Timeline.” : Alaska Important Dates and Events. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.ereferencedesk.com/resources/state-history-timeline/alaska.html.

 

Books:

Allan, Chris. Sitka’s National Historic Landmarks: A Window into Alaska’s past. Anchorage, Alaska: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office, 2013.

Barnett, James K. Alaskan History– in Brief. Anchorage, Alaska: Todd Communications, 2010.

Black, Lydia. Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2004.

Brower, Charles D., and Philip J. Farrelly. Fifty Years below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1942.

Hensley, William L. Ig. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2009.

Insight Guides: Alaska. Insight Guides, 2004.

Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. 3rd ed. Anchorage, Alaska: Greatland Graphics, 1993.

Luehrmann, Sonja. Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

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