The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures



Looking at the human exchanges that took place between the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska and Native Alaskans, during the years 1794 to about 1915.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Crown and Commerce in Russian America

Photograph of a lithograph. [Catherine II]. Biographical File, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Russian discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands by Vitus Bering (1681-1741) and Aleksiei Chirikov (d. 1748) in 1741 was inspired by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). For half a century thereafter, adventurous frontiersmen and fur traders, the promyshlenniki, ranged from the Kurile Islands to southeastern Alaska, often exploiting Native seafaring skills to mine the rich supply of sea otter and seal pelts for the lucrative China trade.

Photograph of a lithograph. [Grigorii Shelikov]. From, General Collections, Library of Congress

One of these daring traders, Grigorii Shelekhov (1747-1795), encouraged by Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-1796), established the first colony in Alaska, in 1784, at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. Shelekhov’s colonial administrator, Alexandr Baranov, ruled so long (1790-1818) and effectively that he came to be known as “Lord” of Russian America. In 1794, the Tsarina fulfilled Shelekhov’s pleas to establish an Orthodox mission in Alaska, and in 1799, Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) awarded Shelekhov’s Russian American Company monopolistic control over trade and government, thus inextricably entwining the Company and the Church. The Company financed the Church in its missionary and educational work, while the Church became the custodian not only of the colony’s morals — often in opposition to Company practices — but also of the spiritual and intellectual nurturing of the Native Alaskans.

Broadside. St. Petersburg current price no. 76, published by the Ministry of Finance at the Department of External Trade every Tuesday and Friday during times of navigation…, December 29, 1811, pp.l,4. Box 2, Yudin Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Although the initial confrontation of Russians and Alaskans was sometimes bloody, with the coming of the Orthodox priests relations generally became more harmonious and mutually beneficial. Before long, however, in 1867, Alaska was taken over by the Americans, for whom gold was, initially, a primary concern. Despite the radical changes wrought by Americans, the deep impression of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy remain to this day in Alaska.

Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska

Wash drawing. Plan and facade for the construction of a wooden church in Novoarkhangelsk for the Kolosh [Tlingits], April 28, 1846. Oversize 5/12 Sitka, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

From the founding of Russian America in 174l, sporadic, informal attempts were made to Christianize the Natives. In 1794, 200 years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church established its first mission in North America, at Kodiak Island in southeastern Alaska. and, in 1799, appointed the first American Bishop. By 1808 the capital was moved to Novoarkhangelsk (Sitka), where in 1848 the Cathedral of St. Michael was built, the seat of the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and Alaska — a vast expanse stretching over 2,000 miles. This “Golden Age” of the Orthodox Church in Alaska ended with the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

Copyprint photograph. [Alaskan Dogsled]. W. S. Kolleck and T. W. Cooper, 1911. Geographic File, Alaska , Library of Congress

The story of the many remarkable priests and monks who served the Church in Alaska, recounted in a number of valuable journals in the Church Archives, is one of incredible achievements against often overwhelming odds. They contended daily with bitter cold and deep snows, traveling by dogsled to attend their widely dispersed parishes. The constant lack of essential resources led them to sell candles and books, and to sometimes sacrifice their own salaries to meet parish expenses. Not the least troublesome was the gnawing competition from shamans for the souls of the Natives, exacerbated by the need for Natives to abandon church and school for long periods in order to survive — by hunting and fishing. Despite the sale of Alaska to the United States, and the incursion of other sectarian groups, Catholic and Protestant, the Russian Orthodox priests continued their mission, leaving an indelible mark upon the culture of the Native Alaskans, visible even today.

Conversion to Christianity

Photograph copyprint, die cut from a large group. Some of our Eskimo friends. Eskimos from Port Clarence brought to the United States by the Reindeer Commission, Bureau of Ethnology 1894. Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The primary goal of the Alaska mission was to convert the Native population to Orthodox Christianity. Education and “pacification” of the Natives, despite their importance to the Russian American Company, were adjuncts to this goal. Conversion was encouraged by the Tsar, as head of the Church, and by the hierarchy. The Church Archives contain numerous statistical records of conversions and descriptions of exceptional instances, as in the case of one Stefan. The annual reports contain invaluable genealogical information: dates of births, deaths, and marriages; Native and Christian names; places of origin, and the like.

Holograph copy of 1840 original. Instructions for any priest who is appointed for the conversion of the unbelievers and in charge of those converted to the Christian faith by the late Metropolitan of Moscow, Innokentii. Instructions composed before he became Bishop of Kamchatka [1840], by Aleksandr Arkhangelskii, 1894, pp.16,17. D330, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Rules for converting Natives strictly forbade using coercion. The emphasis was on voluntary acceptance and on participation in church life — often difficult since many Natives continued to subsist on hunting and fishing. Nonetheless, records indicate that converts were active on every level, serving as priests and deacons, contributing financially, and decorating churches with carvings and icons they produced.

Photocopy of a manuscript map of Netsvetov’s travels. From, Journal of priest Iakov Netsvetov about different occasions and actions, 1828-1843, [pp. 288-289]. D45, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Orthodox missionaries were generally successful in their conversions, more so among the Aleuts and Eskimos than the Tlingits. Among the obstacles to conversion were the language barrier, temporarily overcome by the 1850s, and the shamanistic traditions of the Natives, deeply entrenched in the culture. With the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867, and the coming of Catholic and Protestant missionaries, competition for converts became keen. Indeed, Natives who had been converted to Orthodoxy often tried other denominations — at times to avoid Orthodox formalities — and then returned. Equally often, they reverted to their old traditions of shamanism.

Changing Native Mores

Photograph copyprint. Alaska Indian Chiefs (left to right): (1) Chief Alexander of Tolovana; (2) Chief William of Tanana; (3) Chief Thomas of Nenana; (4) Chief Paul Williams, Tanana Interpreter; (5) Chief Evan of Coshockel; (6) Chief Charlie of Nimto; (7) Chief Alex. Williams of Tanana. Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the course of exercising their charge to enlighten the Native Alaskans, Russian priests often became intimately involved with the Natives’ lives. In addition to attending baptisms, births, deaths, and marriages, and teaching children in the church schools, clergymen often would, with parental permission, “adopt” Native and Creole children, usually with the idea of training them for the priesthood or as translators. At times, apparently to avoid the ill effects of inbreeding, Native chiefs would appeal to the priests to bring in brides from islands or areas other than their own.

Manuscript decree. Decree of his Imperial Majesty [Alexander II], Autocrat of all Russia from the Novoarkhangelsk Ecclesiastical Consistory to the priest of Nushagak Sts. Peter and Paul Church Il’ia Petelin, December 5, 1844, pp.2,3. D202, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

More difficult was the job of modifying the behavior or mores of Natives, in keeping with Christian concepts. For example, suicide and slavery were discouraged with rational arguments rather than by dictate, which the hierarchy felt would be self-defeating. So too were the petty vices of drinking, smoking, and gambling. One antidote to these temptations was to involve converts in the life of the church and community. Indeed, a significant number of Creoles and Natives became priests, deacons, officials in the Russian American Company, and high-ranking military officers.

Holograph note. [To the Bishop, from Reverend Tikhon Shalamov on the image of St. John the Baptist, carved by Aleuts], October 16, 1896. D248, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Still, the bulk of the Natives who had been converted were constantly tempted by the ever-present influence of shamans seeking to return them to the “old ways.” In addition, the infrequent visits of parish priests, whose districts often spanned hundreds of miles, and the need to hunt and fish for survival inevitably weakened commitment to the Church. Nonetheless, the Russian priests succeeded admirably in Christianizing the Natives, as is witnessed by the deeply-rooted presence of Orthodoxy in Alaska.

Shamanism and Christianity

Silkscreen image on plexiglass, from a photograph, die cut. Eskimo Medicine Man, Alaska, Exorcising Evil Spirits from a Sick Boy. Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the most pervasive challenges faced by Orthodox missionaries, in addition to the elements, insufficient resources, and cultural barriers, was that of the traditional Native practice of shamanism. The shaman, a term which originated in Siberia and which means “he who knows,” possessed quasi-magical powers and was capable of protecting his followers from the powerful, often destructive forces believed to permeate the universe. Often serving as chief, priest, physician, and judge, the shaman was perhaps the most influential of tribal members.

Photograph copyprint, cropped. Tlinget Chief Kasheesh (Johnson) and his Totem. Ketchikan, Alaska. Geographic File, Alaska, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the priests noted time and again in their journals, Natives often slipped back into “paganism.” Indeed, tales are related of whole villages renouncing Christianity and returning to shamanism — a phenomenon abetted by the increasing competition among various Christian sects that occurred after the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Despite the inherent antagonism between priest and shaman, at least one story is told of a priest, Father Belkov, who saved a shaman from the wrath of his followers.

Holograph journal. Journal of the priest Lavrentii Salamatov from June 1862 to September 1863, [pp. 19,20]. D45, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Two other distinctive features of Native paganism were the reverence for totems and mummification, neither of which seems to have been problematic. The numerous totem poles found in Alaska reflect the Natives’ animistic beliefs, wherein a group is protected by a singular plant or animal whose image symbolizes their origin and familial unity. Mummification seems to have been less widespread, and was practiced among other cultures — in the Pacific; by the Incas; and in ancient Egypt. While traveling throughout his parish, Father Lavrentii Salamatov noted that mummification was reserved for people of stature, and apparently invovled a form of divination, based on the reading of body forms.

Native Education

Photograph copyprint, cropped. Alaska, Yukon River. Children of Holy Cross Mission. Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Second in importance to the conversion of Native Alaskans was their education. On the founding of the first Russian colony on Kodiak Island in 1784, a school as well as a church was immediately established. Significantly, the school, supported by the Russian American Company, was bilingual, with studies in Russian and Kodiak (Eskimo). Bilingualism and the close connection between commerce and education were to be hallmarks of the educational system throughout the Russian American era and well into the American period.

Photograph copyprint from a lithograph, cropped. [Innokentii [Ioann Veniaminov], Metropolitan of Moscow. Biographical File, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Undoubtedly the greatest educator in Russian America was Father Ioann Veniaminov, later Bishop Innokentii, who devised an alphabet for the Aleut language, expanded the educational system, and insisted that priests learn Native languages and customs. In 1841, he established the ecclesiastical seminary at Novoarkhangelsk (Sitka), which included coursework in Latin, trigonometry, navigation, medicine, and six years of Native languages. Local parish schools offered reading, writing, and arithmetic, Biblical history, penmanship, music, and, at times, as many as four languages simultaneously: Russian, Old Church Slavonic, English, and a Native language. Indeed, the stories of the many remarkable graduates of the Church system, mostly Creoles like the priest Iakov Netsvetov and the explorer-soldier Alexander Kashevarov, are among the most moving in the history of Russian America.

Manuscript menu. Menu for students of the Sitka Orphanage for the week 12 to 18 October 1897. D346, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The Russian American tradition of bilingualism is often contrasted with the American system, dominated by the Presbyterian minister Sheldon Jackson. Appointed the first Federal superintendent for public instruction in 1885, Jackson decreed that only English could be taught at schools. His antagonism toward the “Greek” church prevented his recognizing the unusual success of the bilingual Russian program, whose effects are still evident today.

Preserving Native Languages

Holograph letter. To his Eminence Innokentii, Bishop of Irkutsk, Nirchinsk, and Iakutsk, and Cavalier, from the priest, Ioann Veniaminov, of the Sitka St. Michael the Archangel Church, a humble report, April 5, 1837, pp.3,4 (3 photocopy). D339, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Library of Congress

Among the most enduring legacies of Russian America are the works written and published in Native Alaskan languages: translations of Christian texts, dictionaries of Native words, grammars, primers, and prayer books. The tradition among Russians of giving literary form to spoken languages dates back to the fourtheenth century, when St. Stephen of Perm created an alphabet for the Komi, finnic tribes in northeastern Russia. The tradition was not universally applied, as political factors sometimes required the suppression of native tongues.

Printed book. A summary of Christian teachings in the Aleut Lisyev language, by Ioann Veniaminov. St. Petersburg, 1840, title page. General Collections, Library of Congress

Soon after the founding of Russian America, attempts were made to learn Native languages. As early as 1805 Nikolai Resanov of the Russian American Company compiled a dictionary of some 1200 words in six Native Alaskan languages. The greatest proponent of multilingualism was Father Ioann Veniaminov. He created an alphabet for the Aleut language, and, with the help of the Aleut Toien (Chief) Ivan Pan’kov, wrote and published in 1834 an Aleut catechism, the first book published in an Alaskan Native language.

Printed book. Grammatical essay on the Aleut Lisyevsk language, by Ioann Veniaminov. St. Petersburg: Academy of Sciences Typography, 1846, pp.51,52. General Collections, Library of Congress

As Bishop Innokentii, Veniaminov encouraged the study of Tlingit and a variety of Aleut-Eskimo dialects such as Atkan and Central Yup’ik, most successfully through his Creole protege, the priest Iakov Netsvetov. The latter, in turn, trained other Native and Creole priests such as Innokentii Shaiashnikov and Lavrentii Salamatov, who continued his work well into the American period.

Photocopy, calendar days and weekday symbols, in Russian and Eskimo. From, Kodiak-Aleut (Eskimo) primer [and prayer book], by Konstantin Larionov, ca. 1865, pp. 28 (verso), 29 (recto). C2, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

With the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, the understanding of Native languages declined, although notable efforts to translate Tlingit were made. Ironically, in the sunset of Russian influence in Alaska, more translations (about fifteen) were published than in the “Golden Age” of the 1830s – 1860s (about eight), but many of these were reissues of earlier pioneering studies.


Originally published by the United States Library of Congress, 10.07.1994, to the public domain.

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