Urey Petrovich Lisiansky

Colonial Observer — 1804-1805

Urey Petrovich Lisiansky (aka Iurii Lisianskii) was born in Nizhyn, Russia (now the Ukraine) in 1773. He served as a commanding officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, and sailed with Admiral A. J. von Krusenstern on the ships Nadezhda (hope) and Neva during the first in a series of circumnavigations by the Russians to bring supplies to the Russian American Company and to explore the Americas (Lundberg, 1999). On his first voyage, Lisiansky landed at Kodiak in July, 1804, and again in November of the same year to winter there until June, 1805 (Lisiansky, 1814).

During his eight month stay, he observed and wrote about the Kodiak Alutiiq people who had lived in colonized captivity for twenty years at that point. He kept a diary in which he summarized a few Kodiak Alutiiq origin stories. In 1814, Lisiansky produced an account of his experiences, entitled Voyage Round the World in 1803, 4, 5 & 6 for Alexander the First, Emperor of Russia. Within this book, he retells three creation stories. I include this passage in its entirety as it is a significant resource which is out-of-print:

The real history of the first peopling of this island is not known, though every old man has his story to tell about it. Toyon Kolpack, who is held in great esteem for his cleverness, and whose story obtains most credit, told me, that the true origin of the people was this : —To the northward of the peninsula of Alaska lived a toyon, whose daughter cohabited with a male of the canine species, by whom she had five children, three males and two females. The toyon being displeased with this degenerate conduct of his daughter, took an opportunity, in the absence of her lover, of banishing her to an island in the neighborhood. The lover, coming home, and finding none of his family, grieved for a long time: at last, discovering the place of their exile, he swam towards it, and was drowned on the way. The whelps in the mean time were grown up, and the mother had acquainted them so much against their grandfather, that when he came to see them they tore him to pieces. The mother, on this melancholy event, resolved to return to her native place, and gave free leave to her offspring to go wherever they chose. In consequence of this permission, some went northward; while others, passing the peninsula of Alaska, took a southerly course, and arrived at the island of Cadiack, where they increased and multiplied, and were the founders of the present population.

On my asking the toyon, by what means they reached the island, he very gravely affirmed, that it was formerly separated from Alaska by a river only; and that the present channel was made by a large otter, in the bay of Kenay, who one day took it into his head to push himself through between it and the peninsula.

Another islander told me a very different tale of the origin of the first peopling of the island. The raven, it seems, is considered by many of the islanders as a divinity; and a raven, he said, brought the light from heaven, while a bladder descended at the same time, in which a man and a woman were enclosed. At first this pair of human beings enlarged their dungeon by blowing, and afterward by stretching their hands and feet; and it was thus mountains were constructed. The man, by scattering the hair of his head on the mountains, created trees and forests, in which wild beasts sprung up and increased; while the woman, by making water, produced seas, and by spitting into ditches and holes, formed rivers and lakes. The woman, pulling out one of her teeth, gave it to this man, who made a knife of it; and cutting trees with the knife, threw the chips into the river, which were changed into fish of different kinds. At last this human pair had children; and while their first-born, a son, was playing with a stone, the stone all of a sudden was converted into an island. On this island, which was the island of Cadiack, a man and a she-dog were then placed; and it was set afloat on the ocean, and arrived at its present situation. The man and the she-dog multiplied, and the present generation are their descendants.

These fables, which have a degree of analogy, plainly show, how slow is the progress of civilisation; or at least, how little effect has been produced on these people by an intercourse of more than twenty years with the Russians (Lisiansky, 1814, p. 196-7).

Lisiansky’s description of his informant as a Toyon designated Kolpack as holding a Native leadership position with the Russian American Company. As Black (1977) describes, the Russian term of probable Yakut origin was applied to “Company appointed natives whose duty it was to obtain compliance with Company demands (restricted sense). The word is usually but somewhat erroneously (for lack of other label) rendered in English as chief” (p. 105).

The she-dog and her whelps in this origin story may be confused by outsiders as anthropomorphism of dogs, but it is perhaps more likely that it references a commonly-known Alutiiq designation of “dog people” or people who are outcasts for reasons such as being guilty of an incestuous relationship.

Black (1977) describes Lisiansky as “anticlerically inclined” as he “resented the churchman’s presence” (p. 81). Being of opposing interests with Gideon, Lisiansky sought profitability for the Russian American Company whereas Hieromonk Gideon was interested in serving the spiritual life and wellbeing of the native population. Although Lisiansky devalued the Alutiiq people as uncivilized, the unigkuat he references are significant as we look at versions of these stories told by Elders in contemporary times.