Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska; What angels really look like

[UPDATED SEPT. 28]

The Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska – their collective feast-day (synaxis = gathering) – is commemorated today, the 213th anniversary of the ‘official,’ permanent arrival of Orthodoxy in the Americas, ie, via Alaska – highlighting the Martyrdoms of Missionary Priest-Monk Juvenaly of Iliamna and His Alaskan Indian Reader and Companion in Martyrdom whose name is known to God, and All Other Martyrs of Alaska Known and Unknown, and Lay Young Adult Peter the Aleut,* Martyr of California. (*–My Name Day! 🙂 )

It’s now believed that individual lay Russian fur hunters started baptizing Alaska Native business-partners as early as before 1700, according to Native traditions (PDF). But Orthodox clergy didn’t arrive here until the Valaam Monastery mission of 1794, whose most famous member was St. Herman, the monk. (It was recently theorized or discovered – I forget which – that there was a priest present in the English-run, Greek-populated, virtual-slavery colony of New Smyrna, Florida, several decades before the Valaam mission to Alaska. But the residents, freed by the British royal governor, dispersed to the St. Augustine area, and did not continue as an Orthodox Christian community. For that matter, I believe there was a priest present in one of the Norse Orthodox settlements in Labrador or Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, who may have baptized several Indians, as well as Viking Orthodox children born there. But they, too, did not constitute a permanent Orthodox community at that time.)

Many, especially but not limited to “Westerners,” think Russian Orthodox made up the account of Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom, because we haven’t found his relics, and the Spanish missions in California didn’t have a policy of outright martyrdom. But I’ve studied the matter some, and there are actually more problems with the idea of a made-up story than with the actual martyrdom! I’m working on possibly publishing something. One thing, though, is that he may have been slain at or near Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco; a recent article suggests that’s actually where the geography points. Also, in some icons he’s depicted as being bludgeoned to death, but that doesn’t accord with the versions of the story I’ve ever heard, where he had his fingers and toes cut off and/or was disemboweled. In addition, a sea-fur hunting party matching the description of his was detained by the Spanish near LA around June of 1815, so if we have the whole story, that would appear to be the time of his death, previously not pinned-down so closely AFAIK.

(I took his name at my Chrismation for his martyric witness on this soil, and his and my own rootedness in it as Indigenous North Americans.)

Some confusion surrounds St. Juvenaly and Companion’s martyrdom also, casting doubt on it for many. But the Native evidence – the recounting to St. Innocent years later, the recovery of a cross like Juvenaly’s – is hard to make up.

The other recognized Saints of Alaska at this time are the Monk Herman the Wonderworker, the Missionary Priest, Husband, Father, Widower, Bishop, and eventually Metropolitan of Moscow, INNOCENT,** and his Russian/Aleut co-worker, the Priest and Widower Jacob Netsvetov. (**–Contrary to some parish calendars recently, St. Innocent isn’t an Aleut, but an ethnic Great Russian born in Siberia.)

Someone I’ve highlighted here before is attracting popular devotion, Matushka Olga Michael, a Yup’ik Eskimo who only reposed in 1979. And since today is for ALL Saints of Alaska, not just recognized ones, she may be one of them.

Two other Alaskans’ stories I’m struck by. The first, Ivan Pankov, was chieftain of several Aleutian Islands, a church Reader who probably led prayer services in the absence of a priest, and a collaborator with St. Innocent. He taught Innocent the local dialect and helped him translate written materials into it.

The second is Ivan Smirennikov. This Aleut Orthodox tribal elder was known as a local shaman who cured illness and told fishermen where to find large catches, just as shamen had done throughout the Arctic since time immemorial. For this reason Pankov suspected him of backsliding into paganism, and shunned him. One day St. Innocent was making the rounds of their parish by baidarka or skin-boat, and was greeted by a crowd on the shore of the island where Smirennikov lived. When Innocent asked them how they knew he was coming, they said Smirennikov told them! Curious, Innocent asked them to take him to him. Long story short, it turned out Smirennikov knew things about the faith no human had ever taught him, and when Innocent asked how, Smirennikov – who had never seen an icon either – described two beings who resembled angels depicted in icons, who visited him most days and instructed him in Orthodoxy, and corrected him when he sinned!* Innocent decided Smirennikov should be considered not a “shaman,” with the word’s pagan associations, but a “prophet”(!), and be certain to credit God for his healings. But soon after, “Old Man” Smirennikov reposed.

(*–This also suggests traditional Orthodox iconographers might have it right in how they depict angels, somewhat but not entirely differently than traditional Catholic and Protestant painters. And why so feminine/androgynous? Maybe because they are androgynous, being bodiless, asexual, non-reproducing – I’m just guessing though. But they have men’s names? – or do they have angels’ names, that humans decided to give only [traditionally] to boys!)

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  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for the info about the Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska!

    For some more information about Alaskan Orthodoxy on the web, you might want to check out:

    http://www.dioceseofalaska.org
    (Official Diocesan site)

    http://www.asna.ca/alaska
    (Writings by Sts. Innocent and Yakov in the original Aleut and Alaskan Native languages)

    http://books.google.com/books?id=zFpGoWr7iR8C
    (On-line book: Russian Orthodox Church Of Alaska And The Aleutian Islands And Its Relation to Native American Traditions – An Attempt at a Multicultural Society, 1794-1912, by Vyacheslav Ivanov)

  2. me

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for your visit! And I’ll be darned if that Google book isn’t there in its entirety, unlike most of their books that just give you enough pages to make you want to buy it (or get it through the library)! Often they cut you off in the most interesting part, too! Shhh, don’t tell them, they might take it off!

    I discovered a hardback version of another book plugged on that page, Memory Eternal, about the Tlingit Indian Orthodox, in Drew University’s library a couple years ago, and used it as a door-stop. (Just kidding!) I guess a 700-page book is “the next best thing to being there,” but alot more time-consuming! Still, as a Native American myself, I’d sure like to read it.

    Thanks again,
    Leo Peter

  3. me

    (Now why can’t one edit one’s own Comments? Why can’t a blog owner edit others’ Comments? More Blogger gripes!)

    Anyway, just a reminder to my readers, the Tlingit are the Indians on Northern Exposure… again, in reality, normally Orthodox, not New Age!

    –Peter




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