In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures
Shamanism and Christianity
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.
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.
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.
- 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 (57a)
- Photograph copyprint, cropped. Tlinget Chief Kasheesh (Johnson) and his Totem. Ketchikan, Alaska. Geographic File, Alaska, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (57b)
- Holograph report. To his Eminence, the most reverend Tikhon, Bishop of Aleut and North America, from the St. Michael's Redoubt missionary priest Petr Orlov, a respectful report, September 1901 -September 1902, p.5. D242, Alaskan Russian Church Archives (59)
- Holograph letter. From the Russian American Company, Unalaska Office, to the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord, to Rev. Grigorii Golovin, July 21, 1836, pp. 1, 2 (2 photocopy). D88, Alaskan Russian Church Archives (60)
- Holograph journal. Journal of the priest Lavrentii Salamatov from June 1862 to September 1863, [pp. 19,20]. D45, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (61)
- Photograph copyprint, cropped. Not the [Artic] Chieftain [of the Stone Age] himself, but one of his mummified escorts, lying near the former's beautifully preserved body. In, God's Frozen Children, by Harold McCracken. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1930, opp. p.260. General Collections, Library of Congress (62)
- Holograph book. [Draft of a book of prayers and excerpts from the Bible in the Yukon-Kuskokwim language], ca. 1880, pp.20,21. C3, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (63)