|A LOOK BACK
IN HISTORY: Orthodox Eyes Tells the Story of Two Cultures Meeting
By CIRI Historian Alexandra J. McClanahan
"Culture is not for museums only. It is constantly changing," said Znamenski. An associate professor of history at Alabama State University, Znamenski is currently serving as a resident scholar at John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He said what he tries to convey in the book is the idea that over time, the Russian Orthodox Church became an important element in the Athabascan culture. While some anthropologists in the past have focused on seeking "traditional" elements in Native cultures, Znamenski said he believes the Dena'ina culture is dynamic and that the Cook Inlet people took aspects of the "alien" church and made it part of their everyday lives.
Znamenski said the 360-page book is divided into two parts. The second part of the book includes excerpts of missionary diaries, translated from Russian into English. The records include journals of the first Orthodox missionaries, beginning with Abbot Nicholas, who was stationed in Kenai from the 1840s to the 1860s.
Also cited are many other clerics who worked in the Cook Inlet and Lake Clark areas, including the last Orthodox missionary to the Dena'ina, Paul Shadura. Shadura was appointed in 1906, and he continued even after the Communists took over in Russia in 1917 despite the loss of his salary.
The first part is Znamenski's interpretive essay that frames the documents in historical context and explains how to approach them.
Znamenski, who is originally from St. Petersburg, said he came to the United States in 1993 to do graduate work at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Although he himself is not a member of the Russian Orthodox faith, he is familiar with the liturgy and the doctrine, and he is fluent in Russian. He has a life-long interest in Native Americans, beginning with studies of the Plains Indians of the American West.
He said The CIRI Foundation's first publication, "Our Stories, Our Lives," helped him gain insight into the Dena'ina. He noted that the title of his first major article came from a quote by Happy Nicolai in the book, "Athabascan Church, Russian Orthodox."
Znamenski's major works include the book "Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters with Russian Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820-1917," and the article "Athapaskan Church, Russian Orthodox: Tanaina Encounters with Russian Missionaries, 1893-1917." He also researched the history of Native Siberian people.
Currently he is working on a book that will discuss how Western culture and society viewed indigenous shamanism. The book will be published as "Beauty of the Primitive: Indigenous Shamanism in Western Imagination."
Znamenski studied documents and journals at the Library of Congress, St. Herman's Seminary in Kodiak and the Alaska State Library for "Through Orthodox Eyes." And in 1998, he traveled to Nondalton where he was welcomed by local residents who shared their religious rites with him and showed him how they pray both in Old Church Slavonic and English. He also toured their youth Bible camp.
Fluency in Russian helped immensely, Znamenski said, but he explained that for the older documents, especially handwritten letters, he had to keep an old dictionary handy.
Znamenski said he was inspired to work on the book by Sergei Kan, who studied Russian Orthodox influences on the Tlingits of Southeast Alaska. Znamenski believes the Dena'ina were less resistant to the Russians than the Tlingits in part because the first missionary inoculated them against smallpox. Additionally, he said, there were fewer Russians in Kenai than Sitka and that led to less tension between the two cultures.
Even so, Znamenski said many of the Tlingits eventually embraced Russian Orthodoxy because they found the liturgy, doctrine and ceremonial aspects more in keeping with their culture than the Protestants who came later. Znamenski believes the Dena'ina also found the Russian Orthodox Church was a better fit for their culture than some other denominations.
"Through Orthodox Eyes" is being published by the University of Alaska Press. Plans call for release of the book in a hard-bound volume that will retail for $28. Orders placed before Jan. 31, 2003, will receive a 15-percent discount.