Suqpiaq and Russian Orthodox

Throughout the 1700s, explorers, trappers, and entrepreneurs from Russia made forays across the Bering Straits to what is now Alaska. In the 1870s, they established a settlement on Kodiak Island, though not without considerable bloodshed. In the 1790s, the first Russian Orthodox mission arrived in Kodiak–eight monks from Finland’s Valaam Monastery. They were to work among the Suqpiaq or Tlingit people. Their first report, filed in 1794, includes both a description of the world view of the Suqpiaq and a sympathetic interpretation of that view. Nearly 7,000 converts were baptized in two years, most of the native population of Kodiak.

The first report filed by the missionaries who arrived in 1794 describes in some detail the mythology of the Suqpiaq:

The world was made by a certain Kashshakhiliuk (wise man), i.e., to put it into more readily intelligible terms, there was an allknowing, and at the same time personalized Principle, a Creator. There was neither day nor night. The Creator began to blow on a straw, and this is how the land eventually rose from the waters. Then, while he was still blowing, the sky opened, the sun appeared, and after dusk, the stars appeared and the moon rose. . . Finally animals and people came.

We are all born from one father and mother, and all are brothers and sisters of one another.

The place where the first people came from was warm; there were no winters or storms, but always gentle, healthy breezes. In the beginning, people lived in peace and knew no want. The first people were gifted with long life, and were strong and powerful. To begin with, people lived in friendship, knowing no envy, hatred or enmity–and also they wanted for nothing. But as the number of people increased, shortages and need began to appear, and need taught men to make weapons for hunting animals. Then disagreements arose, and enmity, and the weapons were turned on other people. Shortages and pressure from those who were stronger made people scatter further and further, and this is how all the different tribes arose.

The Russian Orthodox missionaries reflected on this Suqpiaq mythology in the context of their own Biblical faith:

“The place where the first people came from was warm. . . the people lived in peace and knew no want. The first people were gifted with long life” and so forth. What do we find in these ideas? This is the Biblical paradise, the innocent and blessed condition of the first human beings. The longevity of the first people is the longevity of the Patriarchs of the Bible.

According to the Kodiak account of the Creation, there was a certain wise man, that is, a certain allknowing personalized principle, a Creator. . . At the same time, they believe there was neither night nor day; and the Bible says the same. He [the Creator] began to blow on a straw. . . The Bible also relates a similar, gradual process, with the land appearing from the depths of primal chaos. . . . He, the Creator of the world, is so immeasurably great and powerful by comparison to his creation, that for him, the act of breathing alone is enough to create the earth, for there was nothing there before. . . . There are omissions and distortions, but the actual account of Creation has not been lost at all. In the Bible we read: And the Lord God formed man. . . and breathed into him the breath of life. God is not a name but an idea deepseated in the nature of human beings, something which can not be explained, as Justin the Philosopher wrote (Apology 2, chapter 6).

The detailed moral laws about respect for one’s parents and elders and the promise of long life, are they not the same as the fifth commandment of Moses? “We are all born of one father and one mother, and are all brothers and sisters.” This is what the Scriptures tell us.

[From Colin Bearne, trans. The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837 (Limestone Press: Kingston, Ontario, 1978), 19, 22.]