The Alutiiq are also known in their native language as Sugpiaq and in English as "Aleuts" (which is what the Russians called them), and many Alutiiq, especially older people, still prefer the term. Alutiiq or Sugpiaq culture was strongly influenced by the Russians, and they are still Russian Orthodox even though Alaska hasn't been Russian for 150 years. The Smithsonian Institution has an online exhibit on Alutiiq culture that gives the basics. The first section, called "About the People," is an especially good overview. Also click through the pictures in the section on "Our Beliefs," for a survey of traditional beliefs before the Russians came.
In Alaska, Russian missionaries behaved differently than Americans did in the "Lower 48." The Russians left after Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, but many Native Alaskans are still Russian Orthodox. "At the sale of Alaska, everyone thought that orthodoxy would disappear because all the Russians left," Bishop Nikolai, the Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska, told BBC News. "Actually quite the contrary has happened - we are now the largest church in Alaska." An online Library of Congress exhibit on The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures explains how Russian schools embraced Native languages instead of trying to eradicate them like American schools did. After the Americans came, Alaska Native children were punished any language other than English in school -- just like children in the Lower 48 -- and the other languages are dying out now. But for many years they flourished because the Russians encouraged literacy in more than one language:
Local parish schools offered reading, writing, and arithmetic, Biblical history, penmanship, music, and, at times, as many as four languages simultaneously: Russian, Old Church Slavonic, English, and a Native language. Indeed, the stories of the many remarkable graduates of the Church system, mostly Creoles [people whose mothers were Native Alaskan and whose fathers were Russian] like the priest Iakov Netsvetov ... are among the most moving in the history of Russian America.Netsvetov is also known as St. Iakov or, more commonly, St. Jacob. He is, to my knowledge, the only Native American who has been canonized in a Christian church.
Russian Orthodox churches put a lot of emphasis on art and music, and Native Alaskans were soon composing hymns for the Russian Orthodox liturgy. We will hear a couple of selections. First, go to the page of links to Alaska Orthodox Texts compiled by All Saints of North America Orthodox Church in Hamilton, Ont., and scroll down to Aleut Orthodox Liturgical Music collection recorded in Anchorage in 1980-1981 and on St. George & St. Paul Islands in 1980. Click on the hymn "Christ is Risen." (It's near the bottom of the page, in the first set of links under "Audio Resources." To listen in class, you'll have to use earphones.) The language is Unangan Aleut, but the hymn sounds very Russian, especially in its complex harmonies.
Our other musical selection is a "troparion" (a type of Orthodox hymn) to St. Jacob Netsvetov (click on the mp3 file included in the CD "Yup'ik Orthodox Liturgical Music from the Kuskokwim, Vol. 2). In another window, you can see an icon (holy picture) of St. Jacob and read the troparian in English translation.
Do the melodies of the Easter hymn "Christ is Risen" and the hymn to St. Jacob remind you of anything? Congregational hymns in the West, the portions of Catholic (and some Protestant) services that are sung? Gregorian chant? What is the purpose of music among groups of people? How does Western music function like the singing and drumming we heard on the pow wow video? How is it different?
Another Russian Orthodox saint, St. Herman of Alaska, came to this country from Russia in 1794. But he is revered by Alaska Natives, and he is considered the father of Orthodoxy in America since the Russians were in Alaska before Russian immigration began to the Lower 48 in the late 1800s. The Rev. Andrew Tregubov, an Orthodox priest in New Hampshire, tells of a pilgrimage to St. Herman's shrine, when he sailed
... on a fishing rig made up primarily of Alaskans. Over the roar of the giant engines and the ocean wind came a spontaneous singing of the tropar [hymn] “Blessed Herman of Alaska, North Star of Christ’s Holy Church,” that went on during much of the trip across the open sea. The deck was covered with over a hundred people singing with joy to their beloved Herman. They sang and talked about him in the present tense, as if, no – not as if, but because he was with them and for them right then and there.On the website with his sermon, Fr. Andrew shows an icon of St. Herman, and cites two people who believe St. Herman appeared to them. One was a fishing boat skipper who says St. Herman guided him out of the water when he got drunk and fell overboard, and the other was a hiker who believes St. Herman appeared to him on Mount Denali (McKinley), warned him of bad weather coming and thus saved his life.
Do the stories that are still told about St. Herman today suggest anything about the role he and other Russian missionaries played in the transmission of Native cultures? Why do we tell stories about saints, anyway? How are they like the stories that Native Americans tell? How are they different? What role do stories, in general, play in the transmission of culture?
Painter Helen Jane Simeonoff, who is of Sugpiaq or Alutiiq heritage, has her artwork on sale in the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak. She consciously tries to restore traditional forms of expression, including the Sugpiaq langauge which was repressed in the schools after tbe American education system came to Alaska. So her work features seals, puffins, masks, hats, Russian Orthodox churches and other traditions. Study her work, and answer the last question.
How does an artist like Simeonoff blend Native, Russian and 21st-century American artistic traditions in their work. What does this tell you about the transmission of cultural expressions?