Native and Orthodox Beliefs in Alaska

01/01/2024
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    A three-year restoration effort has begun at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna, Alaska. (AP/Mark Thiessen)
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    Traditional “spirit houses” mark graves outside of Old St. Nicholas Church. (AP/Mark Thiessen)
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    Some of the spirit houses have colorful roofs and even chimneys. (AP/Mark Thiessen)
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    A Russian Orthodox bishop prays to mark the beginning of the Old St. Nicholas Church restoration project. (AP/Mark Thiessen)
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    Old St. Nicholas Church’s restoration began with the removal of its rickety belltower. (AP/Mark Thiessen)
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A humble, narrow church stands 25 miles from Anchorage, Alaska. It’s the oldest building in the Anchorage region. A warped belltower has been removed. The structure’s weathered walls enclose religious artifacts from the Russian Orthodox denomination that first founded this church: oil paintings, icons gifted by Russian tsars, jewel-encrusted incense burners. But this building also holds the memories of a nearly 150-year history of Russian culture in Alaska.

October 2023 marked the start of a three-year-long restoration project. The U.S. National Park Service is providing $350,000 to restore the building. This work brings attention to the history of Old St. Nicholas Church and the surrounding community. That history begins in Russia.

Settling Alaska

Three centuries ago, Peter the Great was tsar of Russia. (The term “tsar,” pronounced zar, means “emperor.” It comes from the Latin title “Caesar.”) He hired a Danish mariner named Vitus Bering to sail east and claim land for Russia.

In 1741, Bering arrived on Alaska’s shores. The Bering Strait—the stretch of sea where Russia and Alaska come closest—now bears his name.

Russian settlers soon flooded the newfound land. Trappers sought valuable sea otter pelts.

But the Russians didn’t bring only fur trading. They also brought their faith. In 1794, the first Russian Orthodox church appeared in Alaska. Missionaries baptized an estimated 18,000 native Alaskans.

The United States acquired Alaska from Russia in a treaty in 1867. Today, about 50,000 Alaskans still practice the Russian Orthodox faith. Experts say about 80 historic Orthodox churches still stand across the state. You can spot many by their onion-shaped domes. Of those, many—like Old St. Nicholas—need urgent restoration after decades in the harsh Alaskan elements.

But faithful visitors to Old St. Nicholas might notice at least one detail that seems out of place.

Culture Clash

At Old St. Nicholas, tiny houses dot the on-site cemetery. Most are just a little larger than birdhouses. But they aren’t for birds.

When the first missionaries arrived in Alaska, the native people already had their own religious traditions. They built tiny “spirit houses” over graves, presuming to contain the spirits of the dead.

At Old St. Nicholas Church, congregants sang hymns and heard sermons in Russian, even though few natives understood the words. But the Russian missionaries didn’t want to turn Alaska’s people into Russians as far as culture was concerned.

“The Russians did not try to Russify the natives,” says the Reverend Deacon Thomas Rivas, an official from Alaska’s Orthodox church.

The Dena’ina Athabascan—a native Alaskan people—mixed their own beliefs with Christianity. When religions mishmash like this, it’s called syncretism.

But aren’t “spirit houses” more than a simple matter of clashing cultures? Scripture warns strongly against trying to contact the dead. Christians don’t believe their souls go into tiny houses after death. Christians believe that God has prepared an eternal, heavenly house for us. (2 Corinthians 5:1)

Alaska isn’t the only place where syncretism pops up. Throughout the Bible, God’s people tried to mix false gods like Ba’al into their worship. When they did, God sent prophets and judges to correct them.

The Church Today

Over the years, the Dena’ina people have maintained the church building. When trappers and gold miners overran the region in the 1800s, the entire village moved 25 miles from its original spot. The locals carried the building with them.

Few people still gather at Old St. Nicholas Church. They meet in a newer building while the original undergoes repairs. The congregation has no full-time pastor. Mostly, it’s a destination for tourists.

“With the restoration of the church, we can now once again walk where our ancestors walked, pray where they prayed,” says Charlene Shaginaw. Her grandfather was the last traditional chief in Eklutna. “With the rebirth of the Old St. Nicholas Church, it will nourish our spirits and our souls.”

As Christians, we know the true nourisher of souls is God. The real Church isn’t a building. The real Church is made of people. It’s the body of Christ.

Buildings can help provide a space designated for worship. Their beauty and history can remind us of God’s good story. But can a church that mixes pagan traditions into its faith really nourish the soul the way the purity of the gospel can?

True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. — John 4:23

Why? The gospel of salvation in Christ alone is pure and needs nothing added to it or taken from it. Places of worship can point us to God’s good news, but they can’t replace it.

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