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Education Under Russian
Colonization

1784-1867

While the Russian explorers or promyshlennki (Russian fur hunters) began to map Kodiak in 1769, it wasn’t until 1784 that Shelikhov established their first outpost in Alaska at Three Saints Bay (Afonsky, 1977), near the present village of Old Harbor. Alutiiq stories and Russian acc´┐╝ounts tell of occasional trading and frequent battles, leading up to the massacre and conquest of the Alutiiq people on August 14, 1784, by Shelikhov at Awa’uq (literally translated as Numb) or Refuge Rock as it is commonly known today (Martin, 2007; R. Knecht, Haakanson, & Dickenson, 2002; Pamintuan, 2001). This slaughter and subsequent hostage-taking began a dark period for the Alutiiq as Russian invaders enslaved men and boys to hunt sea otters year-round, while women and children were held captive (Afonsky, 1977). In later years, half of all Alutiiq men between the ages of 18-50 were forced to hunt sea otter to maintain Russian American Company production.

Russian-led Alutiiq hunting parties traveled as far as California, 2,000 miles away by sailboat and kayak, with many Alutiiq men never to return. One Alutiiq song, “Ukut Skuunat—These Schooners,” tells of this sad story when Alutiiq men were taken away from their women to hunt. Akhiok Elder Mary Peterson narrates an introduction and history of the song’s story about when men from Akhiok were enslaved to hunt sea otter and later abandoned near Unalaska (Alutiiq Museum & Blanchett, 2007, Generations CD, Track 25). With the men away for much of the year, or never to return, women and children struggled to survive on their own due to starvation from insufficient winter stores of food (Miller, 2010). This tragic era suddenly interrupted the transmission of knowledge and forever changed family and social dynamics, introducing new devastating traditions of alcoholism, depression, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide.

Believing that formalized education would offer further control of the Alutiiq people, in 1786 Shelikhov established the first school in Alaska at Three Saints Bay, nearby the current day village of Old Harbor, thus beginning western colonial control of Alaska Native education. In a 1786 letter to chief manager Konstantin Samoilov while sailing to Othotsk, Russia, Shelikhov (1786/2006) wrote of the Alutiiq that, “When they know a better way of living, they will understand and will take part in the work that enlightened people are doing.” Shelikhov’s motivation to develop the school revolved around the Russian American Company philosophy of assimilation for economic gain. He describes his plan to send young Alutiiq prisoners back to Russian for schooling:

Education is useful and necessary. Only literate people can be good and accurate interpreters, so needed in this country...For this purpose I am taking with me about forty Americans (Kodiak Alutiiq), male and female, both children and adults, some of their own free will and some as war prisoners. After they see Russia, our buildings and customs, I will reward one third of them and send them back. The other third I will attempt to present to the Imperial Court and the remaining third, the children, we are going to educate in Okhotsk or Irkutsk, and after their education is completed, if they wish it, we will return them here. From them their relatives and countrymen will learn about the law, order, and prosperity in Russia and will want to improve conditions here. (Shelikhov, 1786/2006, p. 1)

In a later reference of Shelikhov’s efforts to educate the Natives, contained within a collection of Spanish documents dealing with Russian presence in California and housed within the Frank A. Golder Papers collection at Stanford University, an 1818 notation describes the results of Shelikhov’s schooling efforts:

“[The Russian American] Company has schools for Creoles and natives, has spent 37,000 rubles. In 1787 Shelikhov took 12 Creoles to Irkulsk. Half died in Siberia. Remaining returned good musicians. R. A. Co. recently brought eight to Kronstadt. Half died. Of other four 3 navigation, 1 ship building, and have returned to Alaska. Four girl creoles taken to Okhotsk. About seven years ago - one survived.” (Golder, n.d. unpublished notes)

Shelikhov extended his plans of assimilation by also requesting a mission of Russian Orthodox monks to Kodiak, who arrived on September 24, 1794 (Golder, 2004; Orthodox Church of America, 1970). The missionary group included seven monks, two novices and ten Natives who had previously been sent by Shelikhov to Russian for schooling in 1786. Prior to baptism, Alaska Natives had no rights in the eyes of their Russian conquerors. In fact, only those who were baptized and agreed to assimilate were granted citizenship and its related rights. However, the missionary monks were not as cooperative as Shelikhov hoped in helping subjugate the Alutiiq people. While they taught at the church and school they built in Kodiak, converting Natives to Orthodoxy, instead of supporting Shelikhov they tried to intervene against the acts of slavery and oppression they saw upon arrival to Kodiak (Afonsky, 1977). After witnessing the abuses suffered, the monks stood up for the Alutiiq captives, and were themselves arrested and abused. Saint Herman survived the other monks, who were either martyred, died of natural causes or returned to Russia.

This period from 1784 to 1818 has been described as the "darkest period" in the lives of Kodiak Island's Native people (Crowell et al., 2001). Life for the Alutiiq began to change for the positive when Father Herman fled Kodiak in 1817 to establish a school on nearby Spruce Island, relatively free from Russian American Company (RAC) rule. After nearly two decades of persecution by RAC leadership, he was successful in providing intercession and offering education outside company objectives. Herman felt it was his duty to protect the Natives from exploitation, and lived his life as their guardian (Golder, 2004). This was the start of what is known as the Golden Age for the Alutiiq people. Father Herman, canonized in 1970 as Saint Herman, built a school, orphanage and garden at Anwik, now known as Monk’s Lagoon. He remained there for 20 years until his repose in 1837.

As other churches were built around the island, so too were schools started and run by the clergy. The influence of the church and schools was pervasive, as Lydia Black (1977) describes,

Gideon established the first ‘Russian-American’ school at Kodiak in 1805 and by the time of his departure in 1807 at least two creoles and possibly one native were teaching in the school. Gideon presided over end-of-school-year exercises, and he could command attendance not only of various important Russians (including Rezanov) but also of all the skippers of foreign vessels in the port. (p. 81)

In Kodiak, Hieromonk Gideon had nearly a hundred students in his school (Dauenhauer, 1997). Dauenhauer describes that “...bilingual schools were paralleling the bilingualism that was the norm for the homes on Kodiak” (p. 28). However, Davydov (1997 reprint) describes the stability of the school as fluctuating during its early years when he writes,

Only those Koniagas who are brought up by the priests from childhood have learnt to read and write and receive the necessary understanding of Christian morality from daily example. A school has been re-established to take one hundred boys and could of course help to spread the Faith were the means available for the upkeep of this establishment. But in 1805 many children there died of hunger and scurvy and this will almost certainly happen again. (Davydov, 1977 reprint, p. 181)

One of the most significant contributions to Alutiiq education during this time was the efforts toward literacy by Russian Orthodox clergy and Alutiiq converts as they translated biblical texts into Sugt’stun and prepared various primers for reading and writing Sugt’stun using a church Slavonic cyrillic orthography. “Gideon envisioned the translation of Church and secular textbook literature into the languages of the native people, and he himself translated the Lord’s Prayer into the Konyag language” (Black, 1977, p. 81). In 1804, Hieromonk Gideon compiled a Kodiak Aleut [or Sugt’stun] grammar with the assistance of Creole Paraman Chumovits” (Dauenhauer, 1997, p. 28). Il’via Tyzhonov, also known as Elias Tishnoff, first published the Sacred Catechism and Church History in Sugt’stun in 1847, developing literate bilingualism with support by Russian Orthodox church leaders such as Bishop Innocent Veniaminov (Black, 2001; Dauenhauer, 1997). In 1848 Tyzhonov published a primer for Sugt’stun and a translation of the Gospel According to Matthew for use within church services on Kodiak and by parishioners (Tyzhonov, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c). Between 1855 and 1867 Constantine Larionov wrote a Primer & Prayerbook in Kodiak-Alutiiq as well. These publications indicate the positive perspective on bilingualism that Russian Orthodox clergy held.

Dauenhauer (1997) describes in his book Conflicting Visions in Alaskan Education that “the Orthodox tradition maintains great respect for the language and culture of the individual” (p. 8). He asserts that “[f]or the Orthodox...one does not have to abandon or change his or her culture or language to become a Christian” (p. 12). Within Russian colonial efforts, “There [was] no attack on a person’s language. Rather the Church sought to instill a sense of pride in the Native language and foster popular literacy in it. Because competency in two languages was stressed, it should come as no surprise that Aleuts had the first bilingual schools in Alaska” (p. 9). Ultimately, Saint Herman and the 1794 missionaries played a major role in Alutiiq education. Dauenhauer (1997) describes that “an unbroken history of Orthodox bilingual education existed on Kodiak Island from the 1790s into the 1960s” due to their efforts (p. 28).

Despite strides in literacy, atrocities and disease again decimated the Alutiiq population beyond the earlier period of conquest, enslavement, and starvation. On Kodiak Island there were a series of flu epidemics in 1804, 1819-20, 1827-28 and 1852 brought by ships to the island that further subdued Alutiiq resistance to Russian empirical forces (Fortuine, 1992). The smallpox epidemic of 1837-40 was particularly destructive, killing huge numbers, leading to forced consolidation of the Kodiak Alutiiq people. Survivors of the 65 village in the Kodiak Archipelago were evacuated by the Russians and relocated into seven communities (Luehrmann, 2008; R. Mason, 1995).

Similarly for the Kodiak Alutiiq, Harold Napoleon (1996) describes how the Yup’ik and other Alaska Native peoples suffered a series of deadly epidemics when foreigners entered their regions, exposing them to new illnesses they were not physically adapted to survive. The Great Death, as Napoleon calls it, left every family in a state of grief for their dead as whole generations were lost. The survivors awoke to a new reality without leaders and without trust in the spiritual healing practices that had sustained them. In essence, their “resistance collapsed because of mass death” (Napoleon, 1996, p. 17). Survival after so much loss explains why Alaska Natives appear to have so easily left behind cherished traditions to adopt new lifeways and why generations later families still experience apathy or historical trauma that manifests as substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide and chronic health issues. As Napoleon (1996) argues, “No people anywhere will voluntarily discard their culture, beliefs, customs and traditions unless they are under a great deal of stress, physically, psychologically or spiritually” (p. 17).

The experience of the Great Death left Alaska Native peoples in a state of desperation and depression where new spiritual traditions brought by missionaries were melded with elements of their ancestral worldview, and where older practices were denounced as evil, resulting in an epistemological metamorphosis that severed connections to a large portion of ancestral knowledge (Napoleon, 1996, p. 12-14). These early acquiescences left an opening for western authority figures to influence greater assimilative changes during the century following.

As sea otter populations declined with the profitability of the Russian territory, the Russian tsar sold the Russian American Company (with implied rights to Alaska) to the U.S. in 1867 (C. Russell, 2009; Bolkhovitinov, 2003; Golder, 1920). The Alaska Commercial Company assumed holdings of the Russian American Company; and although the Treaty of Cession recognized the Alaska Native claim to land, it was not until 1971 that the U.S. agreed to honor these claims with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Unfortunately, from the date of transfer until the passage of ANCSA, education and the Alutiiq way of life again entered a period of decline as they transitioned under new assimilative forces when the Russian colonizers withdrew. Supportive bilingualism did not last for the Alutiiq, as the transition to American colonization buried translated texts, and suppressed both Alutiiq and Russian languages through “English Only” policies that encouraged corporal punishment, transforming the one high point of Russian colonial education into what is known as the period of “Forgotten Literacy” (Black, 2001).

Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation:
Liitukut Sugpiat'stun (We are Learning How to be Real People):
Exploring Kodiak Alutiiq Literature through Core Values

 

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