Shamanism & 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 (57a)

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

Native Education

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.

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.

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.

Photograph copyprint, cropped. Alaska, Yukon River. Children of Holy Cross Mission. Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division (64)

Holograph letter. To the Novoarkangelsk Ecclesiastical Consistory from Innokentii, Bishop of Kamchatka, February 16, 1844, p.l. D88, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript (65)

Manuscript document. To his Eminence, Innokentii, Bishop of Kamchatka, Kurile and Aleutian Islands from the Governor of the Russian Colonies in America, December 1, 1841, p.1. D346, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (66)

Manuscript report. Superintendent of the Unalaska School to the Russian American Company, Unalaska Office, "Document 45," January 11, 1840 - September 1, 1841, [pp. 26-27]. D56, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (67)

Manuscript menu. Menu for students of the Sitka Orphanage for the week 12 to 18 October 1897. D346, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (68)

Manuscript book. [Psalm Book], inside front cover; pp. 35 (verso), 36 (recto). D341, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (69)

Manuscript document. Record of Fox Aleuts who are able to read books as of 1 January 1844, compiled by Reverend Grigorii Golovin, pp. 1-3 (1 photocopy). D30, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (72)

Manuscript record. School journal; given by the Alaska Ecclesiastical Consistory to the parochial school of Nushagak Sts. Peter and Paul Church, for 1897, compiled by Reverend Vladimir Modestov and assistant Vasilii Kashevarov, pp. 142-143. D191, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (73)

Color map. General Chart of Alaska to Accompany Reindeer Report by Sheldon Jackson, LL.D. General Agent of Education in Alaska, 1904. Baltimore: A. Hoen & Co. TC Alaska Education 1904 Jackson (74)

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