Posts tagged Alaska
Editor’s note: The late Dr. Richard A. Pierce was among the foremost historians on Russian Alaska, and his many books remain standards in the field. In 1990, he published Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary (Kingston, Ont., Canada: Limestone Press). Among the many entries in the book is one on St. Peter the Aleut (pages 397-398). I’ve reprinted that excerpt below. While Pierce himself regards St. Peter’s martyrdom as “probably a fabrication,” he points to some very intriguing sources and other incidents that warrant further study.
Petr the Aleut, Saint. (d. 1815?), in June1815 the RAC [Russian-American Company] brig Il’mena took on supplies at San Francisco and then sailed south to poach sea otters along the California coast. In August, 8 baidarkas under the Russian fur hunter Boris Tarasov came ashore at San Pedro, but the Spanish authorities ordered them off. On 17 September, Tarasov landed again, and he and 24 Aleuts were seized. In 1817, Governor Sola delivered 15 prisoners to the Russians, and promised to get others who were being held at the southern missions. Those who had married California women and accepted Catholicism would be allowed to stay.
In March 1819, the Il’mena, under Benzeman, visited “Il’mena Island” (evidently one of the Santa Barbara Channel islands, probably named by the Russians after the vessel), and rescued a Kad’iak Island Aleut, Ivan Keglii (or Kykhliaia or Kychlai) and took him to Fort Ross, where the commandant, I.A. Kuskov, interrogated him. Said to be “not a type who could think up things,” Keglii said that he was among those captured by the Spanish in 1815. The Spanish priests, he claimed, had tried to persuade him and one of his comrades, named Petr (or Chungangnaq), to become converts to Catholicism. Keglii and his friend refused, so the priest returned the following morning accompanied by Indians, had the pair brought out and “then he commanded that Chungangnaq’s fingers should be cut off at the joints, and then his arms at both joints. Finally, not satisfied by this act of tyranny, he commanded that his intestines be opened up. At this last torture, Chungangnaq, thus a martyr, expired.” The same fate awaited Keglii, but was deferred and Keglii, who had watched his friend’s torture and death, later escaped with another Kad’iak man to “Il’mena Island” (perhaps Santa Cruz Island, the closest to Santa Barbara). His companion died, but Keglii lived with the Indians on the island until rescued in 1819.
On hearing of the “barbarous deed,” the Emperor Alexander I at once asked that his charge d’affaires in Madrid be instructed to make inquiries, which was done (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, 29 August 1821:4254, Nesselrode to Pozzo di Borgo). Nesselrode, I.A. Kuskov, Chief Manager S.N. Ianovskii, the venerable Father German [St. Herman], Father Ioann Veniaminov [St. Innocent], and the company historian P.A. Tikhmenev all believed Keglii’s gruesome tale, and the martyred Chungangnaq became revered as St. Petr the Aleut. However since Keglii’s story is unconfirmed by other sources, features a degree of compulsion uncharacteristic of the mission fathers, and resembles no other case reported among Aleut hunters captured by the Spanish and later delivered to the Russians, it was probably a fabrication. The priests at Santa Barbara and most of the other California missions were Dominicans, but in later versions of the story the culprits are said to have been Jesuits. Since the extermination of Indians on “Il’mena Island” by Aleut hunters led by the Russian Iakov Babin, there with the RAC brig Il’mena, occurred at about the same time as the alleged martyrdom of Petr the Aleut, discovery of additional facts on the one may help explain the other.
Here are a few thoughts on the discussion about the historicity of the martyrdom account of St. Peter the Aleut kicked off by Fr. Oliver Herbel and continued by Matthew Namee on the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas’s OrthodoxHistory.org blog. These thoughts are borrowed (adapted and expanded) from comments to “Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut” on Fr. Oliver’s Frontier Orthodoxy blog.
We should understand more about how the cult of St. Peter the Aleut developed in the 1970s, i.e., in the lead up to his 1980 canonization by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Alaskan Diocese. It hasn’t been discussed, but there seem to be questions regarding the motives behind the canonizations. There have been whispers for years that “St. Peter the Aleut didn’t really exist” and about why he was canonized since “he didn’t exist” and ROCOR and the OCA were at each other’s throats in 1980. The process leading up to his local canonizations should be explored.
Specifically, was there perhaps a highly localized cult of St. Peter already that most are unaware of, e.g., in San Francisco, in Alaska, on Kodiak Island? Did The Orthodox Word [possibly Vol. III, No. 3 or Issue #14, June-July] or another publication simply stumble upon primary or secondary documents and unquestioningly publish them as true? Or, was an already established local tradition concerning St. Peter made public along with these supporting documents? If there was a local veneration of St. Peter why was it so unknown prior to the 1970s (and today)? Fr. Oliver says he knows “someone who went up [to Alaska] to document [the oral history surrounding St. Peter] and found none at all and was shocked.” Was the inclusion of Peter’s name in the service for St. Herman of Alaska (canonized in 1970) the primary introduction most Orthodox had to the story of Peter’s martyrdom? What sources were used to write this service? Were all of the primary sources assessed for reliability prior to his canonization (and the inclusion of Peter’s martyrdom story in St. Herman’s service) or were they taken simply, at face value? Was only the most ‘hagiographical’ account given credence to support an a priori decision to canonize? Did the RCC’s beatification of the “Mohawk Saint” Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980 play a part in St. Peter’s canonization on September 24, 1980? Were there political or ecumenical factors at play within the Alaskan Diocese, the OCA and/or ROCOR at the time that the canonization was meant to address? Were there cultural factors at play in Alaska between Natives and those from the lower 48? between Alaska and New York/Syosset?
I highly recommend looking at the various posts (and comments) on this topic available on Frontier Orthodoxy and at OrthodoxHistory.org:
- St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist
- Fr. Oliver Herbel on St. Peter the Aleut
- Monday Morning Priest: Continuing the Discussion Concerning the “Martyr-Peter”
- Fr. Oliver “reboots” the St. Peter discussion
- Rebooting the St. Peter the Aleut Discussion
- Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut
- Is the St. Peter the Aleut story true?
- Primary sources on St. Peter the Aleut
When thinking through these issues, I think it’s also worth noting a couple of things about historical inquiry and the canonization process in the Orthodox Church, in no particular order:
- The Orthodox Church should not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.
- Prelest, ignorance and error must be guarded against through prayerful, sober, deliberative discernment and competent, reasonable due diligence
- Local veneration can be founded on error, the same is true of purported miracles, sweet scents, visions, etc. as many a story in the Paterika tell us.
- Conciliar discernment of sanctity by the Church is required, which includes the bishops in Synod, the clergy, monastics and people.
- ROCOR and the OCA were in canonically “irregular” positions in 1980 when St. Peter was canonized.
- As has been shown in the recent Act of Canonical Communion between the MP and the ROCOR, ROCOR was always only a part of the single local Church of Russia. ROCOR cannot and could not speak for the whole local Church of Russia, definitively. Similarly, it is only the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska that has canonized St. Peter the Aleut, and a single diocese alone cannot speak for the whole OCA, definitively.
- Questioning and assessing local veneration and canonization is part of the ‘reception’ process in Orthodox ecclesiology, cf. the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, A Reply to the Epistle of Pope Pius IX, ‘to the Easterns’.
- Questioning the wisdom of local canonizations is a very different thing than questioning the reality of a St. Christopher, for instance, as the Roman Catholics have done; questioning the canonization of St. Peter the Aleut is not like questioning the canonization of a modern, well-attested to saint such as St. Tikhon of Moscow or of an ancient, universally venerated saint such as St. George.
- A lack of historical documentation does not mean a person did not exist or that an event did not take place.
- It is possible that the Church knows, for a fact, that a person is a saint while not knowing anything for sure about his/her life.
- It is possible there are less than historically factual stories circulating about a saint. Whether the person is a saint or not is a different issue than whether stories about him are literally factual.
- Lack of documentary evidence from centuries ago, from illiterate peoples, from frontiers, from climates that poorly preserve documents, etc. are different than a lack of documentary evidence closer to our age, in places and times with a profusion of surviving documentation, from literate peoples, etc.
- While St. Peter’s world may have butted up against highly literate, documentary cultures (Russian, Spanish) in 19th century California, it can also be said that the Mission country of Alta California and its Channel Islands up through Russian Alaska should be treated more like a centuries-past, wild frontier when assessing available evidence.
- When assessing the canonization of a 19th-century, frontier saint such as St. Peter the Aleut, we should keep in mind the same criteria we use when assessing ancient hagiographical writings surrounding St. George and the dragon, St. Mary of Egypt, non-Biblical Marian Feasts, etc.
- Poetic license is a facet of Orthodox hymnography. For instance, there are innumerable hymns that tell us (“literally”) that Mary said X and the Gabriel said Y and then, etc. Literally speaking, these conversations did not happen; however, iconically and poetically, they tell us something important – especially from the perspective of the Eternal Now, “Today”. (See pp. vii, x-xii in The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Theotokos [Holy Apostles Convent, 2006].)
- We should not be too quick to dismiss such stories as untrue ‘legends’, ‘fables’ and ‘myths’. We must be careful not to assume that pre-modern ways of viewing the world, speaking of the world, etc. are inherently inferior and unreliable when compared to modern/post-modern, materialistic ways of thinking and speaking. There is a paucity of non-literal, non-scientific language in our day; this was not the case in centuries and millenia past in more aural and oral, less literate cultures.
- Hagiography is not simply myth and legend, neither is historical fact the most true portraiture of sanctity; similarly, icons show us not simply historical characters and events as they were on earth in the flesh, but as they are now, transformed by God’s glory – as they were then, too, spiritually. Spiritual time and space are in the eternal Present, the Now, the “Today” of iconography, hymnography, liturgy and prophecy; and this can truthfully elide historical events with events from intervening centuries (as well as ‘interpolated’ theology, e.g., Nicene, Chalcedonian or Palamite formulae), together with present and future events. We are told something more than bare , historical facts in hagiography, which is why less than literal historical events remain in Orthodox hagiography, hymnography, etc. unlike in the RCC post-Vatican II.
- All the historian can do in the case of a poorly attested to event or person is make a case for the likelihood (or not) of existence and veracity. That is, the historian assigns probability regarding the facts surrounding a person or event.
- Probability is not the proper, primary determiner in deciding whether to canonize or not.
- However, evidence and its lack must be given serious consideration prior to canonization due to the ever present danger in sinful humanity of prelest, ignorance, error and overreach.
- Matthew Namee identifies a number of different areas of research in the St. Peter story: the historical (what really happened?), the historiographical (how has he been viewed by people over time?) and the ecclesiastical (how do/should canonizations work?).
- I would underline the importance of the historical question (what really happened?) to the past-tense ecclesiastical question (how and why did this particular canonization take place when it did? in both OCA Alaska and ROCOR?)
What I appreciate about the historical investigation and assessment of both Archbishop Arseny (Chagovtsov) of Winnipeg and St. Peter the Aleut for universal veneration is the enunciation, enumeration and assessment of reasons we may want to consider not formally canonizing these candidates sainthood. We shouldn’t simply decide someone should be canonized and then develop a case for their canonization – especially if this includes ignoring evidence that contradicts their sanctity (or existence). While I think some have overstated the case to be made against St. Peter’s existence based on the evidence available, I expect historians to grant significant weight to the tools of their academic discipline. As stated above, probability is often the best historical inquiry can do, and academic probability alone must not be given precedent over established Tradition. Since Archbishop Arseny and St. Peter the Aleut have only been canonized or venerated locally, as stated above, it is the Church’s duty to conduct appropriate, competent and reasonable due diligence into whether two new saints should be put forward for universal veneration. The Church is in need of those who will play “devil’s advocate”; She is in need of those who will raise potential concerns that could come back to embarrass the Church. Concerns about St. Peter have been whispered for years, and a modest inquiry into Archbishop Arseny quickly raised questions that should have been addressed far earlier in the canonization process. The informal, almost ad hoc nature of the Orthodox canonization process with its lack of formal criteria and procedure is perhaps too easily prone to misuse and/or prelest – or the perception of such. If a friendly “devil’s advocate” doesn’t raise all of the questions that can be raised, I assure you other, less friendly critics will. “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither [any thing] hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” (Luke 8:17)
“Sober, deliberative discernment is required” – which includes historical investigation and assessment – so the Orthodox Church does “not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.” Our saints are canonized because they were and are living canons – literally “rules” – for us to live by. The Church should do all it can to ensure Her “canonized” measures are true.
A DECREE OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS OF ROCOR to the diocesan bishops and pastors of churches directly subject to the President of the Synod of Bishops
0n 15/28 October, 1980, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia [ROCOR] heard the appeal of a number of the faithful for the canonization of the martyrs Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius.
Resolved: In as much as the martyrdom of Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius is not in doubt, and that in accordance with a resolution of the Higher Ecclesiastical Authority their names were listed in the service to St. Herman of Alaska as holy martyrs, a new decision on their canonization is not required. Their memory should be celebrated on the same day as that of the Venerable Herman of Alaska.
[Resolved also:] To send an encyclical ukase for information and guidance to all the diocesan bishops and to the pastors of churches subject directly to the President of the Synod of Bishops.†Metropolitan Philaret, President†Bishop Gregory, Secretary
31 0ct./13 Nov. 1980
(Source; emphasis mine)
This article was written by Christopher Orr.
Yesterday, Isa Almisry made a great comment full of fascinating links and references. One of the most intriguing is this one, on a Russian bell housed at the Mission of San Fernando el Rey de Espana, located 40 miles from San Pedro (where St. Peter the Aleut was reportedly captured):
A hundred-pound bell was unearthed in an orange grove near the Mission in 1920. It carried the following inscription (translated from Russian): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph, during the sojourn of Alexsandr Baranov.” It is not known how this Russian Orthodox artifact from Kodiak, Alaska made its way to a Catholic mission in Southern California.
Another reference presents a theory about how the bell made it to the Roman Catholic mission:
A bell hangs in the belfry of the church. Another bell, weighing 100 pounds and dated to 1796, bears inscriptions for both Mission San Fernando and a Russian Orthodox Church official of the island of Kodiak, Alaska. It is believed by some that the bell originated with Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov’s 1806 Russian trading expedition to Alta California.
I did some further digging, which turned up this note (and the accompanying photo) from the book Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, by Jacqueline Ching: “A Russian count traded it for food in San Francisco, and from there it went to Mission San Fernando.” According to Ching, the bell went missing sometime before 1860, and wasn’t rediscovered until 1920. In addition to the Russian inscription, “DE Sn FERNO” was hammered into the surface.
So who was this “Russian count,” Nikolay Rezanov? According to his Wikipedia page, he lived quite a life. He was a statesman (serving as Russian ambassador to Japan), an explorer (circumnavigating the globe), and a scholar (member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences). But he is most famous for his role in founding the great Russian-American Company, the state-sponsored monopoly that ruled Alaska in the 19th century.
In 1806, he sailed from Sitka (then called New Archangel) to Spanish California. Apparently, the bell in question was on board his ship, although I can’t imagine why. Caught in a storm, he was forced to stop at San Francisco, where he fell in love with the daughter of a high-ranking Spanish official. In part because of this relationship, Rezanov negotiated a treaty between Russia and Spain regarding their claims in America, but on his way back to St. Petersburg to present it to the Tsar, Rezanov took ill and died in Siberia. Click here to see a website dedicated to preserving Rezanov’s memory.
None of this explains how a bell cast on Kodiak in 1796 made it onto a ship bound for California ten years later. The bell itself was probably the first Orthodox church bell made in the Western Hemisphere. For that matter, it may have been the first Orthodox bell in America, period, regardless of where it was originally made. It’s a rare artifact from the original Kodiak Mission, and it’s sitting in a Roman Catholic church in California, unknown (as far as I can tell) to virtually all Orthodox Christians despite its historical significance. I, for one, would love to visit that church and see the bell for myself. If anyone learns more about it, please let us know.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Given the recent discussion about St. Peter the Aleut, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish some of the primary sources we have for his story. As I explained on Monday, there are four main sources:
- The 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan, the only known eyewitness to St. Peter’s martyrdom.
- The 1820 report of Russian official Simeon Yanovsky to his superiors in St. Petersburg.
- The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar.
- The 1865 letter of Yanovsky to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
We don’t yet have a copy of the 1819 deposition. The 1865 Yanovsky letter has been widely circulated, but is almost certainly the least reliable of the four sources. That leaves the two 1820 accounts, which I will reprint here. I have taken them from a paper by Jesuit priest Raymond A. Bucko.
First, the February 15, 1820 Yanovsky report:
Here is an example of the inhumanity and ignorance of the Spanish clergy: In June 1815, on the coast of California near the Mission San Pedro, they seized 15 baidarkas of Kadiak men under Tarasov, of whom two Kadiaks fled to Il’men Island (possibly a Russian name for San Nicolas Island – Ed.) where one of them died, and the other, Keglii Ivan, lived with the natives of this island until by chance the Russian-American Company brig Il’men came in March, 1819, when he appeared before the commander of the vessel, Mr. Banzeman, and was taken to Fort Ross. I enclose the original testimony of this Aleut taken by Mr. Kuskov. He has now been sent here on the brig Il’men and tells me the same thing. He is not a type who could think up things. The Spanish tortured his unfortunate comrade, who until the very end replied to his torturer that he was a Christian and wanted no other faith, and with these words he died. One must note that this victim though baptized like the others was not taught Christianity, probably did not even know the dogmas of the faith except God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.
Here is the report from the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, sent to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820″:
A Company promyshlennick, a native of the island of Kodiak by the name of Kykhklai, who had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards in 1815 and returned to our settlement at Ross and then to the headquarters of the colony on Sitka Island in 1819, gave the following account of inhuman treatment by the Spaniards of one of the Company promyshlenniks.
In 1815 a Company servitor named (Boris) Tarasov was on Ilmen Island, which did not belong to any nation. He was the leader of a group of promyshlenniks who were there to hunt. Since they were unsuccessful there they decided to set out with fifteen dependent islanders from our Kodiak colony to go to the other islands, Santa Rosa and Ekaterina (Catalina?). During the voyage his baidarka began to leak, and he had to proceed to the coast of California. They stopped at the bay on Cabo San Pedro, where bad weather detained them until the next day. While they were there a Spanish soldier came to them from the mission of San Pedro and informed Tarasov that in exchange for some gifts, he would bring to him two of our Kodiak men who had previously run off from another such hunting party and were presently in the mission.
When the soldier left, although the weather was calmer and they could proceed on their projected route, the desire to see and to free their fellow islanders persuaded them to remain there longer. On the fourth day of their stay they were suddenly attacked by some 20 armed horsemen, who tied up all of our people and wounded many of them with their sabers. One of the Kodiak islanders named Chunagnak was wounded in the head. The attackers looted all their possessions and all the Company trade goods. The prisoners were then taken to the mission of San Pedro where they actually did find the two Kodiak islanders who had fled from the island of Clement from another party of partisans. When they reached the mission, a missionary who was head of the mission wanted them to accept the Catholic faith. The prisoners replied that they had already accepted the Greek Christian religion and did not wish to change. Some time later Tarasov and almost all the Kodiak people were taken to Santa Barbara. Only two of them, Kykhklai and the wounded Chunagnak, were thrown into prison with the Indians who were being held. They suffered for several days without food or drink.
One night the head of the mission sent the runaway Kodiak islanders with a second order for them to accept the Catholic faith, but again they remained steadfast in their own faith.
At dawn a cleric went to the prison, accompanied by Indians. When the prisoners were brought out, he ordered the Indians to encircle them. Then he ordered the Indians to cut off the fingers from both hands of the above mentioned Chunagnak, then to cut off both his hands; finally, not satisfied with this tyranny, he gave orders that Chunagnak be disemboweled.
Tortured in this manner, Chunagnak breathed his last after the final procedure. The same punishment would have awaited the other Kodiak, Kykhklai, had it not been for the fact that the cleric received a timely piece of paper. When he read it, he ordered that the man who had been killed be buried, and that Kykhklai be returned to prison; several days later they sent him to Santa Barbara. There was not one of his comrades there who had been taken prisoner with him. All of them had been sent off to Monterey. Kykhklai was assigned to the same work as other Company promyshlenniks who had been taken prisoner by the Spanish.
Wanting to escape from a life of such torture, Kykhklai and another man conceived the idea of breaking away. They stole a baidarka and went in to the bay on Cabo San Pedro, and from there to the island of Catalina, then to [Santa] Barbara [Island] and finally to Ilmen, where one of them died and where Kykhklai was taken aboard the Company brig Ilmen, which had come to the island and then went to the Ross settlement. The others who had been taken prisoner at the same time were freed on the insistence of our captains Hagemeister and Kotzebue.
This incident, just one of many, is a striking example of the inhuman way in which the Spanish treat Russian promyshlenniks. Many who had previously been in their captivity were so exhausted with labor and so abused from beatings that they will carry the results with them to the grave. The suffering inflicted on the poor Indians is impossible to conceive without shuddering. Not only do they not consider the Indians human beings, they consider them below animals. The Spanish take great pleasure in beating innocent Indians then bragging about it to other Spaniards.
Over on his blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel has decided to re-frame his presentation of the St. Peter the Aleut question. He’s taken down both of his earlier articles on the subject and replaced them with a new one, which you can read by clicking here.