On the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, in the village of Eklutna, we found a vivid reminder of a clash of two cultures nearly 250 years ago.
In a spruce forest at the foot of the Chugach mountains, a cemetery is filled with graves marked by dozens of tiny spirit houses painted in bright colors that have been pummeled relentlessly by winter snows and summer rains.
Close beside it an onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel that is filled with elaborate gold icons and intricately-painted images of Orthodox saints.
Looking around, we found that Alaskan Natives had built the ornate church as well as the spirit houses. The spirit houses are an expression of their native culture, while the three-pronged Russian Orthodox crosses reflect the new faith they have adopted too.
This is the cemetery of the Dena’ina (or Tanaina) Alaska Natives, descendants of the Athabaskan people who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia more than 12,000 years ago. Their traditional religious beliefs hold that the world is filled with spirits, both human and animal, who could be called on by shamans to heal the sick or ensure success on a hunting expedition.
After contact with Russian traders, Orthodox priests sought to eradicate the Dena’ina shamans and by the late 19th-century many of the Dena’ina had shifted their faith to the Orthodox Church. The transition emerged after decades of abuse by the traders who quickly established their dominance over the native people.
Beginning around 1784, Russian traders moved from the Aleutians and Kodiak Island to the Kenai peninsula and mainland where they implemented the practice of capturing local natives and holding them as hostages until their kinsmen returned with piles of furs to sell to the Russians. Female natives were forcibly raped and a Russian Orthodox missionary reported that traders “treat the natives in the most barbaric manner…they take the wives and young daughters as sexual partners. They kill any who refuse to hunt sea otters.”
Perched at the edge of a vast, cold wilderness, and fearful of retaliatory attacks, the Russian traders built fortified settlements and later brought the Dena’ina inside their walls where they introduced them to the Russian language and religion while training them to become servants. Smallpox and flu epidemics shrunk the Dena’ina population as well.
By the mid-20th century, the Dena’ina culture was fading. The elders still spoke their language but the young people grew up speaking English and lived among the burgeoning population of immigrants who settled in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.
In more recent years, a cultural revival has focused on reviving the Dena’ina language and culture. Working with the Smithsonian Institute, native Alaskan people have recorded their stories and traditions. They have also created the Eklutna Historical Park.
In the overgrown Dena’ina cemetery in Eklutna, one can almost feel the life of those buried here. Each spirit house tells a story, with the names of the dead painted on wooden panels and plastic flowers or hand-painted tributes written on stones.
William Bryan Walters Sr. died at age 38 but the red-checked curtains in his spirit house and the row of red stars across the roof bring a part of him to life.
Before contact with the Russians, the Dena’ina people cremated their dead and buried their ashes. After becoming Orthodox, the bodies were interred in the ground. The spirit houses at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna provide a resting place for the spirit on its journey from the grave. At the spirit house, survivors leave personal belongings for the departing soul.
After Walter’s burial in the plot beneath the spirit house, the elders held a potlatch in the nearby community center to celebrate his life.
Traditional Dena’ina potlatch ceremonies featured a song composed for the deceased that immortalize their talents and works. Family members give gifts to those who attend a potlatch, a way of repaying any debts to the community.
The impermanence of life is overwhelming at the cemetery in Eklutna. The Dena’ina people believe that the spirit resides in the little houses for 40 days before moving on. Once the spirit leaves, they see little reason to maintain the now empty tiny residences, letting the grass grow up around it and the paint to peel.