The history of Native interactions with Russians in Alaska and the far Northwest is really a history of two institutions that often operated at cross-purposes: the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian American Company. The church, like so many other religious groups in colonial North America, charged itself with saving the souls of the Natives. The company's self-defined purpose was making a profit from the colony's extensive fur resources. The political interaction between the Russian American Company, the Orthodox Church, and the czar's government back in St. Petersburg would profoundly affect changes both in the short-lived nature of the company's mission and the permanent structure of the church.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, Russia began expanding eastward toward Siberia and China, and the Orthodox faith accompanied Russian colonization efforts from the beginning. Although small, transitory Russian settlements had been built by profit-seeking promyshlenniki (fur hunters) throughout the mid-eighteenth century, the first verifiable, permanent settlement was established by Grigorii I. Shelikov, later to head the Russian American Company, on Kodiak Island in 1784. Shelikov was among the first to anticipate the possible profits and benefits of Alaskan colonization. Fifteen years later, the Russian American Company was granted a monopoly on the exploitation of the natural resources and governmental control of Alaska, and the city of Novo-Arkhangel'sk (later named Sitka) was established as the capital of Russian America.
Orthodox missionaries played a major role in the settlement process during this early period of Russian expansion eastward. Native people were baptized by the thousands and given Russian names. Many of these newly Russified Natives were rewarded for their conversion by being released from paying taxes to the Cossack rulers and by promises of employment by the hunters and traders. This conversion of Native people, Russian/Native marriages, baptizing of children, and promises of religiously determined economic gain laid a foundation for the religious conversion policies established in Siberia and the Far East that would be used later in North America.
Between the first Russian American settlement at Three Saints Harbor, near Kodiak, in 1784, and the establishment of the first mission, the explorers themselves were primarily responsible for these rudimentary rituals. The Orthodox mission in Russian America was first authorized by Catherine II in 1793, and then established at Kodiak, the first capital of the colony, on September 24, 1794, by a group of monks sent from the Valaam monastery in St. Petersburg. One of these monks, Archimandrite Ioasaph, was elected to be the first bishop of the new colony.
Ioasaph complained to Shelikov about conditions in Russian America in a letter he wrote in May 1795. Apparently, the company's general manager, Alexander Baranov, was unwilling to assist the priests and even showed outright hostility toward the initial efforts to found a mission church in Kodiak. Ioasaph complained of Baranov's exploits with women, of his encouraging the hostility of the promyshlenniki against the priests, and of insufficient resources and food. The company was proving a hindrance to the monks rather than a help. After being consecrated as bishop in April 1798, Ioasaph died in a shipwreck on the way back to America, with all but three of the other monks. For the next two decades only those three surviving monks remained in Russian America, and a state of constant enmity existed between them and Baranov (Starr, 1987, 127). Both religious rituals and missionary activities were almost nonexistent due to the lack of trained clergy in the colony. Finally in 1816, a small church was erected in the new city of NovoArkhangel'sk, and Aleksei Sokolov came to serve as its first priest, performing baptisms and other church rituals for people who came from all over Russian America.
Along with the first group of monks sent to America from the Valaam Seminary in St. Petersburg in 1794 was a monk named Herman who was to become the Native populations' most adamant defender against the Russian American Company (Rochcau, 1972, 17–18). When Herman arrived in Alaska, relations between the Russians and the Natives were very poor, and, by 1819 (and until 1823), there were only two other monks besides Herman left in Russian America. This period between the first settlements and the reorganization of the Russian American Company in 1821 was a time of great persecution by the profit-seeking promyshlenniki, both of the Orthodox Church and the Native populations in Russian America. After the death of Ioasaph, Herman, as the superior among the three remaining monks in Russian America, reported on these incidents in letters back to Russia.
Because the promyshlenniki were not adept at the hunting of sea otter furs, and the Aleut and Kodiak populations were, the Russians soon found that they would need to either buy or coerce the assistance of the Native populations to exploit this resource (Starr, 1987, 78). In some cases, the pelts were a form of tribute paid by the Aleuts to the Russians, with hostages being held by the Russians to ensure payment. Later, a quasi-feudal system developed, in which the Aleuts were required to work for the Russian American Company and received the goods they needed to survive in return for sea otter pelts. This system was a reaction to the system in place in Russia. Aleut men were separated from their families for long periods of time and forced to hunt in far-off regions (Starr, 1987, 80). As time passed, many of the Natives began to rebel against this system. In the 1760s, armed Aleuts killed the crews of three (or four, according to some reports) Russian vessels (Starr, 1987, 112).
Incidents such as these made it clear to Shelikov that greater support of the church by the company would be necessary to control the Native populations, but as of 1820 only one priest and one monk remained in Russian America. However, these factors helped lead to the reorganization of the company in the early 1820s. After this occurred, the relationship between the Orthodox church and the Russian American Company became one of codependence. When the Russian American Company's charter was to be renewed by the czar, Nicholas I stipulated that the company was ordered to provide adequate financial resources from its own profits for the needs of the Orthodox Church and its Russian, Creole, and Native parishioners (Rochcau, 1971, 106). A string of mediocre leaders filled the position of bishop of Alaska from that point until 1840, when Ivan Veniaminov (later named St. Innocent), who had been working as a diocesan priest on Unalaska Island and at Novo-Arkhangel'sk since 1822, became bishop. It would be under his guidance that the Russian Orthodox Church would gain a truly permanent foothold on the North American continent.
Veniaminov reported that, between 1799 and 1828, the Native population had decreased rapidly. This was due in large part to fatalities that occurred during the long hunting expeditions on which the Russian American Company sent parties of Natives. Also, the absence of the Aleut men on these parties caused starvation among the remaining Native peoples in their villages. Veniaminov also noted that the state of the education of the Natives was extremely poor and that Herman was the only monk teaching in a school for Natives. Because he was held in high esteem, Herman's letters back to church and government officials in Russia were effective in that they were one of the causes for the reorganization of the Russian American Company, which eventually led to more ecclesiastical leadership in America. Only because of a new company charter from the czar was there any renewed interest in both education and ecclesiastical leadership. Although the Russian American Company paid the priest's salaries, not many newly ordained clergy were interested in making the hazardous journey into an unknown area where some had already been martyred. To the extent that the ecclesiastical situation had deteriorated, so had the education of Natives, Creoles, and Russians in America.
Veniaminov designed and built the Church of the Holy Ascension, along with his own home and a school in 1826 (Veniaminov, 1993, 47). He and his wife taught in the school, which had about a hundred pupils of both genders, instructing them in scholastic subjects and trades. This education, like all assistance to Native Alaskans, did not come without a price, however. All men educated in company schools were obligated to serve the Russian American Company for ten to fifteen years (Chevigny, 1965, 199–200).
Veniaminov then undertook the task of learning the local language and put it into writing. Although Russian was the primary language taught in the school, after he had gained enough proficiency, he taught a course in the Native language, called Aleutian-Fox. He compiled an Aleutian-Fox dictionary, a grammar, and a primer to teach the children. He then translated into the Native language the Orthodox Catechism, the entire gospel of Matthew, the book of Acts, and part of the gospel of Luke into Aleutian-Fox, along with a sermon he had authored titled "An Indication of the Path to the Heavenly Kingdom" and a brief history of the Orthodox church (Oleska, 1992, 344).
Veniaminov took many trips to the surrounding islands of Akun and Unga, where sizable Native populations lived. While on these islands, he performed and explained the rites of the church, along with the sacraments of baptism and confession, for the Native Aleutians. He also blessed all of the marriages, allowing them to be recognized in the sight of the Orthodox Church. Interestingly, in a demonstration of the overlapping of civil and ecclesiastical authority, Veniaminov also had to administer the oath of allegiance to Czar to all Russians, Creoles, and Natives that he ministered to. Veniaminov even encouraged the older Natives to continue to tell their myths and legends, and he himself was not an apologist for earlier Russian atrocities committed against the Aleut populations. Veniaminov's journals, letters, and edicts verify a view of him as a missionary who did not use forced conversion as a tactic, but who attempted to integrate Russian and Native beliefs.
After the death of his wife, Veniaminov was transferred to Novo-Arkhangel'sk, the new episcopal seat of Russian America, becoming bishop of Alaska in 1840. The Russian American Company was seeking a renewal of its charter at the time, and, because the Russian government was very concerned with the welfare of the church in America, the construction of a new cathedral was a high priority to the company (Nordlander, 1995, 24–25). His growing influence can be seen in the new company charter, in that Russians working in America were forbidden to use force against the Natives, except in keeping peace, and could not establish any posts without the consent of the local Native population. Governmental and church authority overlapped in this period to prevent Native abuses. This was not always out of sympathy. The fact that the company was better off, in tandem with the appointment of church leaders like Veniaminov, created less pressure to exploit the Native populations for monetary gain. He also became an ambassador to the other colonial powers in the region, as he entertained foreign visitors such as Hudson's Bay Company chief, George Simpson.
From Novo-Arkhangel'sk, Veniaminov directed the expansion of Orthodox mission work in the vast Alaskan interior, whereas before missions had been established only near the coastline. With the establishment of many missions, he would help to create communities of Native Orthodox believers that still exist today. The long-term success of these missions was based on Veniaminov's emphasis on the enculturation of the liturgy and theology of the Orthodox church. Just as he had learned the Aleut language, Veniaminov strove to learn the Tlingit language upon his arrival in Novo-Arkhangel'sk. Other priests were not as willing or able to learn the Native languages as Veniaminov, so a seminary was established in 1845 to train Native clergy, who Veniaminov thought were necessary to the long-term success of the church in America. Most Russians were in America only temporarily, whereas the Native clergy were permanent residents, and they had a stake in the future of the region. The seminary trained priests, deacons, and lay readers. Some of these went on to train further at seminaries in Russia before returning to Alaska. This indigenization of the Orthodox clergy would prove essential to the survival of the faith (and, with it, Russian influence) in Alaska after the sale of the region to the United States in 1867.
Veniaminov's methods may explain the continued strength of the Russian Orthodox Church among Native Alaskans, even a hundred and forty years after the end of Russian rule in the region. During the initial period after the sale of Alaska to the United States, most Russians returned home, and the Aleuts primarily continued the operation of schools, churches, and trading posts (Oleska, 1987, 165). After 1920, nearly all clergy were Native. Veniaminov's vision of an indigenized church is what would allow it to survive both in the changing political climates, and in the lives of Native converts.
Steven L. Danver
Chevigny, Hector. 1965. Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741–1867. New York: Viking.; Nordlander, David. 1995. "Innokentii Veniaminov and the Expansion of Orthodoxy in Russian America." Pacific Historical Review 44 (February): 1.; Oleksa, Michael, J. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.; Oleksa, Michael, J., ed. 1987. Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press.; Rochcau, Vsevolod. 1971. "Innocent Veniaminov and the Russian Mission to Alaska." St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 15 (March): 1.; Rochcau, Vsevolod. 1972. "St. Herman of Alaska and the Defense of Alaskan Native Peoples." St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 16 (January): 1.; Starr, S. Frederick, ed. 1987. Russia's American Colony. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.; Veniaminov, Ioann. 1993. Journals of the Priest Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska, 1823 to 1836. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.