Orthodoxy in Alaska after 1885 and Protestant Missionaries

The Russian Orthodoxy course I am teaching at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, is drawing to a close.  Since I am the instructor, we devoted part of that course to an introduction to the Russian Mission in North America and another part to Orthodoxy in America more generally.  So, to break up the posts on +Arseny a bit, I thought I’d share with you all some things we discussed, with a couple of questions I had in mind as I went through the material during the years immediately following 1885.  There are no footnotes, here, and what I have typed is not everything we discussed, so please don’t assume it is.  Hopefully this will be of mild interest to some of you nonetheless.  I will say that one source I have found helpful, and you can read the influence here, is Sergei Kan’s Memory Eternal.  I liked the book when I first read a couple years back and like it still.

What was the response of the Orthodox Church in Alaska to the (mostly) Protestant missionaries from the lower 48 states after 1885?  Who were the more important figures and what were some of the more significant events?

In order to get at these questions properly, two things should be noted.  First, the response was a bit more of a mixed bag than some would care to admit.  Not every missionary served the Native Americans equally.  Second, there were tensions prior to 1885, which resulted after the 1867 sale of Alaska to America.  For example, in 1873 an Aleut man was arrested for refusing to send his son to the “American school.”  He and his son were locked up separately and fed bread and water for four days (at which point the father consented).  Additionally, the initial American presence had been a rowdy contingency of soldiers under General Davis, a group that looted Sitka quite heavily, at one point looting St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral itself (though this was so egregious that even Davis agreed to mete out some punishment for this act).  The soldiers left in 1877 to fight Native Americans in Idaho.  What changed in 1885, was the installment of a Protestant missionary, Sheldon Jackson, as the U.S. Agent for Education.  Late nineteenth-century Alaska saw a situation as close to Protestant Erastianism as could probably exist in the United States.  In fact, the primary times of tension existed during the services of Sheldon Jackson (1884-1905) and the Governor John Brady (1897-1906).

The major figures on the part of the Orthodox who took part in these conflicts are Fr. Nikolai Mitropolskii, Fr. Vladimir Vechtomov, Fr. Vladimir Donskoi, Fr. Anatolii Kamenskii, Fr. Iosif Levin, Fr. Ioann Sobolev, Bishop Nicholai, and Fr. Alexander Kedrofskii.

Mitropolskii was the resident priest at Sitka.  Prior to 1885, during the “Indian Scare” of 1877-8, Mitropolskii had been just as distrusting of the Native Americans as every other citizen, fearing that large gatherings of the Native Americans placed the residents’ lives at risk.  In 1885, Mitropolskii found himself reaping the benefits of the Tlingit reaction to the boarding schools of the Presbyterians and Sheldon Jackson.  Also, the presence of a Presbyterian boarding school inspired Mitropolskii to revive the Orthodox parish school (which seems to have been in a decline from about 1879-1884).  By the mid 1880’s, he had already complained to the Russian ambassador in Washington, D.C.  His central concern was that the Orthodox students at the boarding school were very limited in the ir freedom to attend Orthodox services.  For his part, Rev. Austin, the director of the school, seems to have also been unhappy with having students, who remained Orthodox, attend the school.  He allowed the students to attend Vespers on Saturday evenings, but not the communion service of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday mornings (or on most feast days).  Austin became very upset, when he learned that Mitropolskii was telling the Tlingit that the teachers at the boarding school might, in many ways, be their mothers, he was their “father.”  A court ruling at the time, found Jackson’s five-year contracts legal.  The Presbyterians won the battle, but the Tlingits began to look more to the Orthodox Church.  However, the cathedral was nearly seized by the Northwest Trading Company because of a large debt of Mitropolskii and eventually the priest was moved.

In 1886, Fr. Vladimir Vechtomov stayed for a month in Sitka as an interim pastor.  While his tenure was short, he helped move along the conversion of many Tlingits.  His tenure is noted by three things.  First, after learning of the involvement of Mitropolskii in local politics, Vechtomov suggested to the bishop that the next priest not speak English, so that he would concentrate on parish life.  Second, he showed respect for the Tlingits by visiting their homes and speaking with them (visitations and hospitality was and is a very important part of Tlingit culture).  This seems to have been something that Mitropolskii did not do.  The result was the baptizing of 52 Tlingits, two of whom were heads of major clans.  This began a trickle effect, such that by 1889, the majority of Sitka’s Tlingit population had become Orthodox.

The task of baptizing and catechizing them fell upon the next priest, Fr. Vladimir Donskoi.  From the moment of his arrival, Donskoi made it clear that his focus was upon the Tlingits (a fact that angered the local Creole population).  Donskoi refused to allow any sort of segregation akin to that of the Presbyterians (there were two separate worship spaces at the Presbyterian school, which eventually became two separate parishes).  In 1887, when some Creole parishioners wanted a separate burial ground, he flatly denied the proposal.

Within two weeks, he had baptized 57 converts.  By the end of 1886, the 300 Natives outnumbered the 216 Russians and Creoles and by 1887, the number of Orthodox Natives increased to 623 (though this includes some residents of other villiages).  One of the things Donskoi did to encourage Tlingit participation is to maintain elaborate funeral processions and emphasize the 40 day memorials, all of which were important to the Tlingit and their sense of honoring their ancestors.  Additionally, healing the sick involved not just “White Man’s medicine,” but an entire sacramental approach.  He also used Tlingit to some extent in the services, translated much of the Bible (with helped), spoke against drunkenness, blessed the fishing fleet each year, and strove to be sensitive to Tlingit cultural mores (such as the Tlingit emphasis on medals/awards).  He also worked to secure some medication for the sick (as sometimes Natives would be turned away from the Presbyterian hospital unless they became Presbyterians).  If the parish lacked the funds, he would spend of his own (and he had a wife and children!).  At one point, he even took on six orphans.

Donskoi was not without his faults (he seems to have used corporal punishment in his school and after being transferred to Juneau, he argued for the inclusion of a Tlingit into a local brotherhood, because she was only half Tlingit—though it could be that he simply used the Creole’s prejudice against themselves).  However, he sympathized with the Native Americans and at one point, fought to remove Protestantism from the local public school’ curriculum (different from the Presbyterian boarding school).

If Vochtomov got the ball rolling and Donskoi increased its momentum with his clear sympathy toward the Tlingits vis-à-vis both the Presbyterians and the Russians/Creoles, then Fr. Anatolii Kamenskii fought the battles such momentum necessitated.  While Kamenskii’s own version contains some melodrama, the tensions and events themselves did occur.

The most highly-documented event may be the battle over a deceased Tlingit woman in 1897.  She had desired an Orthodox burial.  Her husband and her two younger children concurred.  However, the two sons at the Presbyterian boarding school objected.  The woman was placed into a “Presbyterian” coffin (large enough to contain the “Orthodox” one.  This went against Tlingit protocol, which would have said that the two sons, being of the same moiety were not to be involved in making a coffin and one should never get an outside enforcer, but should go to the other side/clan anyhow.  Whether Kamenskii, who was less tolerant of Tlingit “paganism” than Donskoi had been, realized this is difficult to say.  Regardless, Kamenskii had a fight on his hands.  For not long thereafter, a procession including the marshal (Louis L. Williams) and the Governor (Sheakley) were carrying the dual-coffin setup from the house in order to be buried according to Presbyterian practice.  Soon, a grave was dug and just prior to the burial, a judge’s order prevented the disgrace from completing.  Immediately following this, the headmistress of the school attempted to forcibly admit the other two children, but by taking the husband to the judge, Kamenskii was able to prevent this as well.

Another event involved Kamenskii getting a young lady removed from jail, after she had asked Austin to let her marry a young Orthodox man, he had refused, and she had fled the boarding school.  Kamenskii baptized the young lady upon her release.

Kamenskii also reinvigorated the local school, hoping it would eventually train future priests and iconographers, not to mention cantors (a minor, almost “lay” office that conducts services when other clergy are not available).  Additionally, he traveled extensively, going beyond Sitka in order to increase the number of Orthodox Tlingits.

Perhaps his relationship with the Natives can be expressed best in another 1897 event.  A group of Tlingits, both Orthodox and Presbyterian, went to him about petitioning for the removal of liquor sales and shady American new comers who were “corrupting” their wives and daughters.

This petition specifically mentions three errors: 1) that Mr. Brady was constructing personal buildings on burial grounds, using the bones as part of the banking for those buildings or tossing them into the water 2) that the local fishing company was throwing traps across streams, preventing spawning from occurring in the lakes and depleting the bays’ fish population 3) the removal of the saloons.

Eventually, a Tlingit villiage (Killisnoo) received its own priest so that it no longer needed to attend the Cathedral in Sitka.  While the first priest had missioned successfully, the next priest, Fr. Iosif Levin, presents a case of an Orthodox clergyman who behaved exactly like the Presbyterians the Orthodox confronted.  Levin often yelled at the Natives during the services, in which he’d wave his arms and call them names.  He publicly humiliated the women, calling them prostitutes.  Public confrontations is a major insult in Tlingit culture, something that served only to compound the problem.  He even feared contracting venereal disease, to the point that he would often refuse to visit the sick or to bury the dead!  What’s more, he refused to give awards or monetary donations or to act as a peacemaker when disputes arose.  When he was finally removed, the lack of a permanent priest helped the local Protestant missionary, Rev. Jones.  Levin is an example of an Orthodox missionary who not only refused to aid the Tlingits, but made their situation worse and refused to an arbitrator amongst them or for them.  He may have been an exception that proved the rule, but it’s important to note that there were exceptions.

Fr. Ioann Sobolev eventually filled the spot in Killisnoo.  Sobolev had a much different approach than the zealous Donskoi or Kamenskii.  Sobolev was an intellectual romantic.  After spending time in the famous Slavianskii Choir, he settled in San Francisco and became a cantor, married a German-American, and eventually was ordained and sent to Killisnoo in 1893.  He spent much time in solitude, writing the necessary reports to his superiors as well as romantic poetry.  His quiet personality and his tolerance for the Tlingit customs served him well.  By the time he arrived, Rev. Jones had established the practice of chopping up icons to “prove” the falsehood of Orthodoxy.  Avoid all direct confrontation, Sobolev responded by conducting frequent services, administering the sacraments as often as needed, running religious/educational meetings, and distributing medicine.  He even acted according to Tlingit custom, at one point proclaiming that he himself would hold a “potlatch feast” if they would help build a road.  When he did need to affect moral changes, he refused to call the police or navy (as would Jones and other Protestants) and determined only to use persuasion.

Bishop Nikolai, who served from 1891-8 wrote to President McKinley concerning the Alaskan situation in which he raises some of the same concerns the Tlingits themselves had raised in their earlier petition.  He asks why the Orthodox Church is being driven out since it has already established the “light of truth” in Alaska and he wonders how America can do this, when she declared war on Spain, ostensibly for similar abuses.  He also cites articles 2 and 3 of the Declaration of 1867, which clearly provides protection to the Aleuts and Orthodoxy.

In Unalaska in 1900, an event eerily similar to the coffin fiasco encountered by Kamenskii occurred.  In that case, the Jesse Lee Home, a Methodist missionary endeavor, met opposition from Fr. Alexander Kedrofskii.  In this case, the deceased was a young girl.  The Presbyterians simply buried the girl in the Orthodox cemetery on their own, without consulting Kedrofskii.  A letter-exchange with the headmistress ensued, in which Kedrofskii argued there was no such thing as an “American” religion or a “Russian” one.  His second letter reads as a short treatise, wherein he argues against her deceit and the establishing of the Methodist root in an Orthodox Orchard, where the people who come to her already possess the true faith.  He also defends the natives against her exaggerated claims regarding their sinfulness, noting that even with regard to the sins they do commit, she neglects to note their penitence and she fails to understand the rite of confession itself.  At one point he tells her that the Natives are not engaging in habitual ritual and suggests that she try making a habit of standing for two hours and longer at a time.

Eventually, Bishop Tikhon and Sheldon Jackson have a relatively positive exchange of letters and the tensions die down, although Jackson’s monolingual, mono-religio approach would come to rule the day and the Orthodox Church would suffer difficulties after the Russian Revolution and the cessation of Russian funds.

Fr. Oliver Herbel, executive director

[This article was also posted at http://frontierorthodoxy.wordpress.com]