Eklutna Historical Park is located in Chugiak, Alaska and within this park, one will find both the old and new Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. This church has a churchyard filled with unique graves that are known as spirit houses. They dot the landscape with color and are a symbol for how Christianity changed the way of life for the Inuit people who settled the land: the Dena'ina tribe of the Athabascans. Join me as we explore the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Churchyard!
The town of Chugiak is twenty miles northeast of Anchorage. The name "Chugiak" comes from a Dena'ina word meaning "place of many places". The Dena'ina were originally known as the Tanaina (tuh-nye-nuh), which means "the people." The native people of Alaska do not live on reservations, but rather in tribal villages. The villages of the past were led by a village chief. The Tanaina settled around the mouth of the Eklutna River in the 1200s. In 1650, they founded the village of Eklutna and they have remained there ever since. This village is the last of eight villages that existed before the construction of the Alaska Railroad. The Tanaina made earth homes that were made by digging an underground chamber and lining it with log walls that were then packed with layers of dirt for warmth and the roof was thatched. Russian missionaries arrived in 1830. This would change the way of life for the tribe. And the coming of the missionaries was not peaceful in some areas. Several of them were murdered.
Before the missionaries, the Tanaina would cremate their dead. The ashes would be placed in a birch bark basket which was put in a tree or by the riverside. The Tanaina believed that the deceased spirit would then travel to the "High Country." The missionaries taught them to bury their dead instead. The missionaries also established the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church. The original church still stands, but is not used today. That old church was constructed out of hewn Spruce logs in Knik in 1870 and then moved to Eklutna in 1900. This is the oldest standing building near Anchorage and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior has no furnishings except for an oil stove, a table and an altar. The floor is made from plank puncheon. The Alaska Railroad brought colonists in 1915 and a railroad siding and station were built in 1918. More non-native people would come following World War II when a military installation was established here, but it no longer exists and those that remain in the village all have some native heritage. The new Russian Orthodox Church was built in 1962 and is painted white with light blue trim. The construction was spearheaded by Athabaskan Chief Mike Maxim Alex.
The Russian Orthodox denomination is said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew who reached the area that is now Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. He is said to have erected a cross there that is now where St. Andrew's Cathedral is located. The denomination is represented by a very unique cross that has three crossbeams with the lowest one being slanted. They adopted this from Byzantium. The upper arm represents the inscription over Christ's head and the slanted bar represents the footrest. As to why the footrest is slanted, no one is really sure but many believe that the pointing upward part is towards
Paradise for the Good Thief on Jesus' right who acknowledged Him and
downward to Hell for the Thief on His left who mocked Him. Catherine the Second, who was the Empress of all the Russian territory, was the first to appoint clergymen for work in Russian America. Even after Alaska became the property of the United States in 1867, the Russian Church still continued its work in Alaska.
The new St. Nicholas Orthodox church features two of the Orthodox crosses and also two of the domes that are Particular to the orthodox church style. They are onion-shaped domes on top of the cupolas. Some historians believe that this is a Persian influence, but others think the origin is more practical and that it kept the snow off. Next to the two Russian Orthodox churches is the churchyard, which some refer to as Eklutna Graveyard. Upon entering, one immediately notices what makes this graveyard so unique and one of the most photographed in all the world: the spirit houses.
The spirit houses are made from wood and painted bright colors. These spirit houses are a uniquely Tanaina/Athabaskan tradition. The burial practices here are a long process and wonderfully unique. After a funeral, the graves are covered with stones and then a blanket. The blanket is meant to comfort the soul. The blanket is left for 40 days and then the spirit box is constructed right over the blanket. Most of these measure three or four feet in length and two or three feet in height. Some have glass windows and porches and even cupolas. Little houses built inside a house are done for a mother and child who died together. If a fence is put around a house, the person buried there didn’t live in the community. Prized possessions were placed in the spirit houses as well, like weapons, books or other tokens. Family members will then paint the spirit house in the colors that represent the family and add geometric shapes. Married couples will sometimes the blend the colors of both their families. Some of the graves just have a spirit house and others also have a Russian Orthodox cross. There are also graves marked only with crosses, honoring the resting places of the Orthodox non-native members of the church.
There are around one hundred burials in the churchyard. And some of the spirit houses are in a serious state of decay because the Athabaskan believe that everything should return to the earth and that includes the houses. The houses were not just meant to serve as markers, but also were a place to hold the spirit as they took the journey to Heaven. This would keep the spirits from bothering the living. Many of the graves have no names, which makes it harder to get a record of who is buried here. I did find one that was a baby who was born and died on the same day in 1958 and his name and that of his parents is on a marker: Thomas Wayne Alex and his parents were Herbert and Elisabeth Alex. There is a white fence around the grave, meaning that the baby was outside of the community. Another spirit house has a metal roof and the name on it reads Dan Alex. Another house has several inch-wide holes drilled all around the walls. Not sure the purpose.
One of the guides for the cemetery is Aaron Leggett and most of his family is buried in the churchyard. The most striking spirit house belongs to his grandmother, Marie Rosenberg. The house is white with blue trim around miniature windows and a red roof. It was built on a welded-steel frame by Leggett's uncle Frank. The house stands about 4 feet high and looks like a dollhouse with all the detail. It is a model of a two-story white clapboard house and is based on the girl's dormitory at the Eklutna Vocational School that was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1925 to 1945. An icon of the Virgin Mary peers out from one of the windows. Leggett's grandmother passed away in 2003.
The cemetery is left to grow wild and wildflowers are everywhere along with long grasses. A path of rocks winds around the outside. Evergreens line the area around the graveyard and it just seems to be the perfect setting for an Alaskan churchyard. The only thing that seems out of place are the bright colors of the spirit houses. And that was just a little about the stones and bones found here.