Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Alaskan adventure: echoes of Russia

So I wasn't surprised to see a pair of babushkis the day the dotter took me and GD to the stream where, last year, her husband had simply reached in and lifted out a salmon. (Not so easy this year -- there's been a lot more rain.) No, I wasn't surprised; after all, the Russians had settled Alaska, hadn't they? I was not aware of the numbers --only 800 Europeans at most. And few of them elected to stay once the USA had title free and clear. So I should have been surprised!

So what is it about the Russian influence that lingers to this day? Credit the missionaries of the Russian Orthodox church. According to Wikipedia, the most visible trace of the Russian colonial period in contemporary Alaska is the presence of nearly ninety Russian Orthodox parishes with a membership of over 20,000 men, women, and children, almost exclusively indigenous people, including several Athabascan groups of the interior, very large Yup'ik communities, and the quasi-totality of the Aleut and Koniag populations.

The cemetery at Eklutna is a prime example of the melding of Christian and native traditions, in this case the Athabascan. The brightly painted sprit houses for the dead have been erected by native parishoners since missionaries arrived in the 1840s. (Of interest to Arizonans: the local Navajo and Apache are the only Athabascans in the lower 48.)

The houses are built in the shadow of the onion dome of Russian Orthodox Old St. Nicholas Church (above).

As a tourist, I presumed that there should be a commercial echo of Russia -- and so there was, in the multi-story downtown mall in Anchorage.

Shawls for the babushki and matryoshka (nesting dolls) galore...

Plus highly decorated samovars. (And I saw one Harley Tshirt, BTW -- it wasn't very exciting to look at, hence no photo.) However, this brief account of Russians in Alaska is not finished. Arriving in 1968 were world's most obscure community of Russian outcasts. These are confined to a handful of small villages: Nikolaevsk, Voznesenka, Razdolna, Kachemak-Selo, Port Graham and Nanwalek - no more than 2 or 3 thousand people altogether - in the south-west of the Kenai Peninsula, writes Vitali Vitaliev. And quite fitting: these villagers are descendants of schismatic Old Believers who fled Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution. A state with only 11 numbered highways is certainly an excellent place for an small ultra-conservative congregation to thrive far from any limelight.

Wasilla: Thanks to the upcoming election, the media is suddenly all agog about this small Alaskan city and every commentator appears to have an opinion. So do I, as this was one of the places I visited during my stay. Let's start right off with the fact that at least two of those numbered highways go through or originate in this Anchorage bedroom community. Not one but two Thai and one East Indian restaurants, a WalMart and Target. Northern Exposure it definitely ain't. (Even though moose do show up almost everywhere. So they say -- I didn't see a single moose anywhere I went in Alaska.)


Anonymous said...

I like this post. Nice potos and stories to go with it.

The Artful RV Adventurer said...

Excellent post, Granny. mark

Anonymous said...

I was aware of the Athabascan language group amongst Northeast Asian-Americans. (I refuse to call them "native" Americans.)

So do Navajo and Apache share any cultural traits with their cousins in Alaska, or is it just language?

Anonymous said...

And, the Russians settled along the Left Coast, near today's city: Monterey.

Your post will encourage me to read more about the Athabascan culture.

~Anon in AV.

Granny J said...

steve -- I actually learned quite a bit as I was writing the piece. If I have a question, it's off to The Google I go. My original understanding was that the little houses were something Russian, but apparently not.

mark -- thank you. It's always good to have someone else with you as you learn new things!

boonie -- you might call them Early Asian-Americans. Does your spirit of purism allow any group of humans to be native to any place other than the Great Rift Valley of Africa? Not that I disagree with your choice of monicker -- it's a reminder that we're all latecomers to these shores.

anon av -- I thought that the main russian settlements were north of San Francisco... As for the Athabascans, I was quite taken aback by the spirit houses. My understanding is that the Navajo do not like to have anything much to do with death.

meggie said...

Another very interesting post!

Antipodean Curmudgeon said...

The caption, here, for the American Indian is 'red indian' (no political inference).


Granny J said...

meggie -- good to see you again!

bro -- FYI, the local Arizona tribesmen have made it abundantly clear that they prefer "Indian" to the pussy-footing PC term "Native American."

Lucy said...

Curried moose anyone - or should it be curryboo?

Really interesting post, I knew very little about Alaska's heritage and history. The spirit houses, like little colourful decorated dog kennels, are fascinating; quirky and quaint graveyard traditions often are...

Granny J said...

lucy -- I was quite surprised at what I discovered, from reading John McPhee, talking to my SIL and visiting The Google. I had presumed many more Russians in Alaska and was surprised at the extent of Russian Orthodox missionary work.

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