An imported faith is now a vital and inseparable part of Alaska Native culture, writes Yereth Rosen
by Yereth Rosen
Deep in the old-growth forest of Alaska’s Spruce Island, 8-year-old Julian Griggs made the Sign of the Cross before dipping his plastic bottle into the cold spring water. “Umm,” he said after a sip. “That tastes sweet.”
Up the trail, Julian’s parents joined other adults for a three-hour liturgy near the Orthodox church that enshrines the tomb of St. Herman of Alaska. But here in the forest, beside a small wooden shelter of candles and icons, the children were partaking in another Orthodox tradition.
The spring water that Julian was drinking is considered holy. According to local tradition, the spring was discovered by the monk Herman, a starets (or spiritual father in Russian), who came to Alaska from Russia in 1794. Until his discovery of the spring, the island was thought to be without fresh water. Pilgrims credit the spring water with healing a number of medical and spiritual ills.
“It’s really good, even if it’s a little brown,” said Xenia Hoffman, 12. The spring, and all that surrounds it, drew her family to Alaska. They moved here from California last year “because of St. Herman,” she said. “We wanted to be closer to him.”
Each summer, the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of Alaska organizes a pilgrimage to Spruce Island, an hour’s boat ride from the fishing town of Kodiak. Most come from the Alaska Native villages in the Kodiak region, but some come from as far away as Eastern Europe.
St. Herman was not the first Russian to come to Alaska. Legend holds that Russian settlers first established a colony in 1648. And in the early 18th century, Russian explorers and merchants sailed to Alaska by way of a strait (later named for one such explorer, Vitus Bering, who was in fact a Dane in the employ of Peter the Great) separating Asia from North America. They returned with sea otter pelts, which proved very valuable.
Officially, Gregory Shelikhov founded the first Russian-American colony in 1784. Riches, not religion, were in mind; Russian America was a collection of hunting and trading posts.
While there were isolated attempts to Christianize the Alaska Natives, it was not until 1794 that the Russian Orthodox Church, upon Shelikhov’s request, established its first mission. Traveling from their island monastery of Valaam, near Russia’s border with Sweden, Father Herman and other monks reached Kodiak Island on 24 September.
By then, many Alaska Natives were living as slaves, forced to hunt for furs. The Russian traders had broken up families and resettled communities. When Alaska Natives resisted, Russians retaliated by killing many and destroying the hunting gear vital for their survival. Violence and disease claimed 80 percent of the native population of Alaska during the first 40 years of Russian contact.
Into this climate arrived Father Herman and his companions, who did their best to protect the Alaska Natives from mistreatment at the hands of Russian traders. “They are exploiting in every possible way. One must testify about their barbarous treatment of the [Alaska Natives],” Archimandrite Joseph Bolotov, the head of the Kodiak mission, wrote Shelikhov a year after the group’s arrival in Alaska.
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