One of the most interesting places we visited in Alaska was in the small village of Eklutna. The village is little more than a tiny dot on the map, but it has an interesting spot that nicely highlights the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the native population of the region.
The Russian Orthodox church is arguably one of the few good things the Russians did for the native people of Alaska — the Russian legacy is generally that of exploitation of the Alaskan Natives for the furs they provided (especially popular were sea otter pelts, the animals driven to the brink extinction by Russian demand). The Church’s influence dates to the 18th century when the first missionaries came to the region with explorers Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov. The church made efforts to share their faith with the native populations of Alaska, providing at least some spiritual guidance and help in a tangible way through mission works, though I’m sure it was a far from perfect effort. The first formal religious outpost in Alaska was in Kodiak, where there still is a Russian Orthodox church and a small monastery to this day. This is an example of one of their satellite churches.
The Eklutna Historical Park is mostly a cemetery, but there is an old Log Cabin Church and a newer still active Russian Orthodox church at the site. The newer church is pictured at the top of this post and was completed in 1962, having the typical domes (cupolas) you expect of the Russian Orthodox faith. While it is small and simple appearing from the outside, it has an amazing interior. There are dozens of beautiful images of icons on the walls, looking old but actually being representing fairly new creations by Russian Orthodox artisans. Below are some photos taken of some of these impressive images.
Prior to the completion of the new church, an old log church was used which still stands on site. It was built around 1870 by the Eklutna Indians (who were supervised by missionaries) and is one of the oldest log structures surviving in the greater Anchorage area. The logs used to make the church are roughly hand-hewn and pegged rather than nailed. A small bell tower was added a few years after the church was built. This old church is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The artifacts in this church are significantly older than in the new church, some more than 200 years old. Because of the risk of fire and the age of the old log cabin church, it was decided that the newer church was needed more than 50 years ago, resulting in the building of the church featured above.
The main feature of the Eklutna Historical Park is its collection of interesting and unusual spirit houses. Most of the people who rest here are Athabascan Indians, but there also some Russians and Yupik Eskimos. Graves are dug to a standard 6 foot depth and bodies are buried. The spirit houses are placed over the grave 40 days after the burial to house the spirit of the deceased and their possessions (sort of a hybrid of a pagean tradition and a Christian burial). Each family has a specific color — important in the past to people who couldn’t read grave markers. But the sight of these colorful boxes — many in a poor state of preservation — sitting in the woods of Alaska is truly memorable.
Many of the graves are more than a century old, but there also recent additions indicating that both the church and cemetery are still actively used.
One of the symbols you’ll see often around the site is the Three-Barred Cross. The lady in charge when we visited explained that this is the oldest known Christian cross, dating to very early Byzantium times (more than 1600 years old). It was adopted by the Russian Orthodox faith and remains especially popular in eastern Europe. The top bar of the cross represents the inscription over Jesus’ head, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews”. The longest middle bar is for the outstretched nailed arms of Jesus. The slanted lower bar is a footrest. One side is slanted up, to the thief crucified on Jesus’ right who confessed and was forgiven. The thief on the left did not make a similar confession and this side is pointed down.
As a side note, the village of Eklutna was named after Eklutna Alex, chief of the village, who died in 1953 at age of 83. Eklutna Alex had taken care of the Old Log Cabin church. His son, Mike took over this roll, helping build the new church with his sons. Mike died in 1977 and is buried here.
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