The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures

The Russian Orthodox Church and Native Alaskans

Introduction to Exhibit

The coming together of a renowned scholar and a rich, but relatively unknown and unused archive of historically significant documents is a rare phenomenon. Last winter [1993-1994] the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, asked Dr. Vyacheslav Ivanov, one of the foremost linguists of our day, to review and evaluate the Alaskan Russian Church Archives, and to select some items for an exhibition. This installation is the direct result of that encounter, and it offers a rare opportunity to witness the insights that such an exchange can produce.

In the space of little more than a month, Dr. Ivanov scoured hundreds of documents in the Archive, probing deeply for the vital, historical truths that lay within them. The results of that remarkably intense experience were an evaluative essay written by Dr. Ivanov about the Archive; an oral presentation of his findings and observations, shared with Dr. Billington and interested Library staff; and this exhibition -- based on objects Dr. Ivanov selected and commented upon while reviewing them, day after day, in the Manuscript Division, whose staff generously provided a room and brought forth box after box of documents.

In confronting these documents, mostly written in Russian but some in the Alaskan Native languages of Aleut, Eskimo, and Tlingit, Dr. Ivanov has resuscitated the vibrant, incredibly moving 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. These remarkable priests, intrepid heroes such as the Russian "giant" Ioann Veniaminov and the Creole Iakov Netsvetov, were not merely essential to the success of the colony established by the Russian American Company in 1784, they were also the agents through which much of the culture and languages of Native Alaskans were preserved. Only in recent years has the magnitude of their achievement been recognized -- and most appropriately during this 200th anniversary of the founding of the first Orthodox mission in North America in 1794.

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