Book offers look at Kenai history that is open for interpretation

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

Scholars are perpetually trying to understand the social changes that resulted from Russian colonial contact with the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Kenai is no exception. There are many sides to what has transpired here over the years.

There also are many unanswered questions about the people, places and history of Kenai, but a recent book, "Through Orthodox Eyes," by Andrei Znamenski, sheds new light on this subject.

Published by University of Alaska Press as part of its historical translation series, it makes the diaries and reports of Kenai's early Russian priests readily available in English for the first time.

"Through Orthodox Eyes" is split into two parts, with the first half framing the documents in their historical context with an explanation of how to approach and interpret what is read. The second part of the book is the translated excerpts from missionary diaries.

The book includes writings by Nikolai Militov, known as Hegumen or Igumen (Abbot) Nikolai, the first priest stationed in Kenai. Surrounded by a white wooden fence, the chapel in Kenai's Old Town is built over his grave and considered a sacred site by Alaska Russian Orthodox faithful. The church, rectory, chapel and cemetery are all national landmarks.

Nikolai was born about 1807 to a religious family and studied at a seminary in Tambov, in European Russia, before entering a monastery.

He volunteered to serve in the American colony and worked in Sitka before coming to Cook Inlet. His bishop, the famous Ivan Veniaminov, who was later canonized as St. Innocent, appointed him to serve as Kenai's first resident priest beginning in 1845.

Nikolai ministered to the small group of Russians at the fort and trading post, which were located in what is now Old Town Kenai, and the more numerous Dena'ina, whom the Russians called Kenaitze.

Unfortunately, there are no records from his first years in the parish, when he baptized more than 1,000 Natives in the Cook Inlet region and helped build Kenai's first church building.

However, the book does include a report from 1850 and Nikolai's travel journals beginning in 1858.

" I have the honor to inform You (Bishop Innocent) that since my arrival at Kenai the church has successfully established itself among the local people. The number of its parishioners grew due to the number of newly baptized people. On the whole, natives here became more enlightened. The piety of the people increases as word of the gospel reaches them. Before the missionary came to the Kenaitze, these people were wild, rude, treacherous, vengeful, superstitious and devoted to shamanic customs. Nowadays, thank God, all these things, which earlier were so dear to the Kenaitze, are almost eradicated from their memory. Moreover, they have almost abandoned their native dances, which should make ashamed those enlightened peoples who still view dancing as an acceptable amusement. ..." Hegumen Nikolai, Sept. 13, 1850, report.

While religious readers may view these statements as testaments to the overwhelming odds these early priests faced, more secular readers may find the same passages simplistic with a limited view of the culture. Ultimately, the journals merely provide an outsider's perspective of indigenous peoples and their cultures.

"I've read them, and I think they were probably pretty accurate," said Father Thomas Andrew, the current resident priest at the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai.

Andrew also is an Alaska Native, a Yup'ik Eskimo whose family's last name is Tikhonoff.

"All priests are required to write journals," Andrew said. "I write them, too, so people 50 years from now can see what I went through. Nikolai wrote what he saw. I think he was a compassionate man, who tried hard and did good work."

Alan Boraas, a University of Alaska professor of anthropology, teaches several courses at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna that deal with contact between Alaska Natives and Outsiders and other related topics. He has a different perspective from Andrew on the journals.

"Here (the Sept. 13, 1850, report) the priest describes the Dena'ina in negative terms reflecting the value judgments of European culture. In doing so, he magnifies the importance of his own work which he, of course, describes in a positive way. The Dena'ina view of his activities was probably much different."

The viewpoints raise the question: What effect did Nikolai have on the Kenaitze culture?

"He had an impact, but I don't know about damaging the culture like some people say," said Andrew. "No matter what group of people come into contact with another group of people, you will see change. But no one forced anything. The Natives came to (Nikolai) and asked to be baptized. They chose Russian Orthodoxy."

Znamenski, author of "Through Orthodox Eyes," makes the case that one of the key components to the success of the Orthodox mission in Alaska was that it proceeds from a belief that all things are fulfilled in Christ, not replaced by Christ. This contrasted many other religious groups operating at the time who called for eradication of Native culture in order to be saved.

"Russian Orthodox Christianity sanctifies the world and makes it whole. It's not separate from God. Indigenous culture saw it the same," Andrew said.

Znamenski also said he believes the Kenaitze were a dynamic people who chose aspects of Russian Orthodoxy, as well as other aspects of Western culture, and incorporated them into their everyday lives.

Andrew agrees.

"Some of the superstitions almost lined up with Russian Orthodoxy. It didn't contrast, it complemented the indigenous Alaskan culture," he said.

Andrew uses a section of Nikolai's journals to illustrate his point.

"In the middle of May the king salmon reached our area. This is the best red fish we have here, and the Kenaitze celebrated the fish run with some sort of festivities, during which they treated each other with food. When about 10 months of the year they have to eat dried fish, which is not always enough, one can understand why the natives felt so happy. " Hegumen Nikolai, 1862.

This ceremony closely correlates to communion, Andrew said.

"One is for salvation and one is for celebration, but both are about more life. Both believe if you share more, you get more in return," he said.

Boraas evaluated this same passage this way: "The priest is referring to the 'First Salmon Ceremony,' which was performed annually with the first return of salmon. It was a world renewal ceremony that recognized the Dena'ina connection to salmon and the cycle of the seasons. It also shows that the phrase 'the kings are in' has a long and important history on the Kenai Peninsula."

Even today, the Kenaitze still hold informal events to signify the importance of the return of salmon. Another passage by Nikolai from September 1858 also offers some detailed descriptions of Native ceremony.

" Earlier, when they were heathens, the Kenaitze, like many other savages, burned the deceased people, then put their bones in boxes and buried them in cemeteries.

"Close relatives from time to time visited the cemetery and hysterically wept. Others who were also grieving came to a cemetery too and exchanged various gifts.

"At the anniversary of the funerals, relatives of the deceased usually gave a feast, during which they treated all expected and unexpected guests with dried fish, berries mixed with grease and divided everything that could be found at the host's place.

"Guests danced and afterwards the host was to bestow a present on each of them. Honored guests received more, the poor ones received less. Thus, the host gave away almost all his meager possessions.

"Nowadays the Kenaitze have gradually abandoned this custom. Instead, nearby Kenaitze now come to church and ask the priest to perform a requiem service to commemorate the anniversary of a relative's death."

Commenting on this passage, Andrew said, "That was their memorial. It was their way of dealing with grief. "

Said Boraas: "The priest is describing the Dena'ina funerary cremation and potlatch. Cremation was believed to send the soul, known as a 'shadow spirit,' to a 'reincarnation place,' whereupon it would be reincarnated again as a human, but without the memory of previous lives," he said.

"It was believed that, upon death, the deceased soul then knew the thoughts of the living and the potlatch ceremony functioned to express remorse and ask for forgiveness for bad thoughts toward the deceased and in doing so, cleanse the soul of the living.

"The priests tried to eradicate this practice because of cremation and the concept of reincarnation was incompatible with Orthodoxy. It would be 90 years, however, before the practice disappeared from Dena'ina territory."

Nikolai remained in Kenai until his death in 1867, a month after the United States purchased Alaska, and documented much about Kenai over the years. After his death, his post remained vacant until 1880.

Although not of the Russian Orthodox faith himself, Znamenski is familiar with the liturgy and doctrine and has had a lifelong interest in Native Americans, all of which comes through in his book.

Currently associate professor of history at Alabama State University, Znamenski came to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1993 to do graduate work at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Prior to his most recent work, Znamenski published the book "Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters with Russian Orthodox Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820 - 1917."

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