Russian America - Missionary Activity

Missionary Activity

At Three Saints Bay, Shelekov built a school to teach the natives to read and write Russian, and introduced the first resident missionaries and clergymen who spread the Russian Orthodox faith. This faith (with its liturgies and texts, translated into Aleut at a very early stage) had been informally introduced, in the 1740s-1780s, by the fur traders who founded local families or symbolically adopted Aleut trade partners as godchildren to gain their loyalty through this special personal bond. The missionaries soon opposed the exploitation of the indigenous populations and their reports remain one of the main sources on the violence exercised to establish colonial rule in this period.

Inspired by the same pastoral theology as Bartolomé de las Casas or St. Francis Xavier, the origins of which come from early Christianity's need to adapt to the cultures of Antiquity, missionaries in Russian America applied a strategy that placed value on local cultures and encouraged indigenous leadership in parish life and missionary activity. This cultural policy was originally intended to gain the loyalty of the indigenous populations by establishing the authority of Church and State as protectors of over 10,000 inhabitants of Russian America (where the number of ethnic Russian settlers had always been less than the record 812, almost all concentrated in Sitka and Kodiak).

A side effect of the missionary strategy was to generate a new and autonomous form of indigenous identity, allowing many native traditions to survive in local "Russian" Orthodox tradition and in the religious life of the villages. Part of this modern indigenous identity is an alphabet and the basis for a written literature in almost each of the ethnic-linguistic groups in the Southern half of Alaska. Father Ivan Veniaminov (later St. Innocent of Alaska), famous throughout Russian America, also developed an Aleut dictionary for hundreds of language and dialect words based on the Russian alphabet.

The most visible trace of the Russian colonial period in contemporary Alaska is the presence of nearly ninety Russian Orthodox parishes with a membership of over 20,000 men, women, and children, almost exclusively indigenous people, including several Athabascan groups of the interior, very large Yup'ik communities, and the quasi-totality of the Aleut and Koniag populations. Among the few Tlingit Orthodox parishes, the large group in Juneau adopted Orthodox Christianity only after the Russian colonial period, in an area where there had been no Russian settlers nor missionaries. What probably explains such an extent of a local Russian Orthodox tradition and its persistence is the merger of local cultures and Christian beliefs and rituals. It is a situation not comparable in many aspects to the Spanish Roman Catholic colonial intentions, methods, and consequences. The Laws of Burgos with its Indian Reductions of conversions and relocations to missions, had much more force and coercion with different results than those of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Read more about this topic:  Russian America

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