Island Culture Today
The majority of Alaskan Natives (Aleuts, Alutiit, Yupiit, Tlingits, and some Athabaskans) profess, or until recently professed, Russian Orthodoxy (Black 2004, 223). St. Paul and St. George Islands both have Russian Orthodox churches. St. George the Victorious Holy Martyr Church at St. George Island was built in 1936 and was most recently rehabilitated in 1996. Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church at St. Paul celebrated its one hundred-year anniversary in 2007.
The conversion to Christianity was peaceful, gradual, and effected in the early stages by laymen (Black 2004, 223248). Similarities existed between some Aleut and Orthodox religious practices and symbols. For example, both Aleuts and the Orthodox prayed to the east, viewed water as purifying and healing, associated a bird with the spirit or the Creator, and practiced fasting and abstinence.
A shortage of Russian Orthodox priests in Alaska has always plagued the Alaska diocese. Clergy are generally Alaska Natives. During 2007, St. Paul Island had a full-time priest and a subdeacon. St. George Island did not have a full-time priest or a deacon; however, the priest residing at St. Paul served both communities on a rotational schedule and during times of special need. Additionally, the churches on each island have Blessed and Tonsured Readers that conduct reading services in the absence of a priest. This arrangement is similar to that found in many Alaskan communities today. Local entities, such as individuals and the village corporations, make financial and in-kind contributions to support the churches. The St. Paul Tribal Government contributes to the upkeep of the church and provides free housing to the priest and his family.
Here are two Pribilof Aleut perspectives on the role and influence of the church and religion in their lives and communities. Quotes are taken from 2003 interviews:
“The religion [Russian Orthodox] of our people has been very important. It’s certainly brought us through some hard times, and it’s kind of always been there. It’s always been there for me. I can’t explain it. It’s brought the Aleuts to where we are today. The religion and the church is the center of everything up here. When times are hard, you could always go to the church, and people always seem to go whenever they’re in trouble. If they’re scared, they pray to God. We turn to God whenever we’re in trouble, and we turn to God and we thank him whenever we’re not in trouble. He’s kind of the anchor of everything we do.”
“Before the Russians came to Saint Paul … the Aleuts didn’t really have a religion, or they did; it was just that … it was in everything. It was in the grass. They had spirits for the water, spirits for the seals, that sort of thing.”
“I still think everything has a spirit. For instance, whenever we catch a halibut when we’re out fishing, I’ll thank the halibut. I thank him for giving his life to me, and that sort of thing because that’s the thing. I’ll kind of pray, say a prayer. But I think it’s in Russian Orthodox all around, though. It’s not really just a nature religion.”
“I could see how it was easy for our people to embrace Russian Orthodoxy because so many of the practices of the church, or the practices of the Russian people that brought the religion to the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands, those activities were very similar to what our people did before.”
“…probably into the late ‘70s is where you started to see people slowly move away, and not be a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. There was a sadness to that, and I think it has been gradually declining ever since then. I don’t know what percentage of the people actively participate on a regular basis in the Russian Orthodox church presently, but it is a very, very small percentage. People will go to the special services, the Christmas and Easter, but not every Saturday and Sunday like they did twenty years ago.”
Aquilina recalls a discussion with her father, Father Michael Lestenkof—a late priest in the Russian Orthodox church.
“…he said, ‘I really respect the orthodox church, but sometimes I do wish I could’ve experienced what it was like when our people really respected, and lived in unison with the Earth, the sea, and the sky,’ and for me, it felt like he was giving me permission to look deeper into this when he said that, and I, like many other people, have had a difficult time trying to balance both a religion and spirituality, and how I [can] embrace what has existed with my people for thousands of years before Russian Orthodoxy was introduced.”
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