Aleuts, or Unangan as they preferred to be known today, suffered severe hardships at the hands of early Russian fur traders. However, it was the Russian Orthodox Church that tried to offset this abuse by treating the Unangan with respect.
Prior to the fur trader’s arrival, little was known about the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands or their religious beliefs. Their religious leader was a Shaman who had contact with the ancestors and spirit world, but he also had a multitude of other tasks to perform. He helped people inter the world and helped them leave it.
The arrival of fur traders from Russia altered the symmetry of their cultural existence.
The Russians had a ready market for their furs and the race was on. Within fifty years after their first contact, the Unangan population of the Aleutian Islands plummeted to a few thousand from a high of around fifteen to twenty thousand. The people were exploited severely by slavery, decease, starvation and gross neglect at the hands of the traders. To add insult to injury the Unangan were called Aleuts and that name has remained until this day. Russia to its credit made efforts to enforce fair treatment but was largely ineffectual until the arrival of the church.
Once the priests and monks arrived on the islands much was done to alleviate the suffering of the Unangan. However, by the time the church came on the scene the population had already dwindled just like the otters and seals they were hunting. The Russian Orthodox Church made every effort to accept the belief system of the Unangan and they were encouraged to keep their customs and culture. Instead they made every effort to mesh their own theology with the native people’s belief system and a very workable relationship was formed. In fact much of early Unangan culture was based on first hand observation by the priests. The priests strived to learn their language and translated many of their religious texts into the Unangan language. Of course it was the churches aim to convert the natives to their theology, but they went about it in a very human and respectful manner.
The first church in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands was built in 1808. The present day church of the Holy Ascension of Christ was constructed in 1895. It is now a national historic landmark. The church is both a beautiful edifice outside, with its two outstanding onion shaped domes, as it is awe inspiring inside, with its many icons, art pieces, along with other influences of the church. That is why the church, even today, is prevalent in many cities in Alaska. To the Alaska Natives the Orthodox Church is a source of pride with church services conducted by the people since visiting leaders of the church from Russia are rare visitors.
It is not to say that the relationship between the church and people was perfect but it was light years ahead of the fur trader’s treatment. Nevertheless, it was still light years behind their original culture. When Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 the natives promptly became classified as Indians and pretty much left to themselves. The management of Indians in the lower forty eight attests to the fact that the treatment of the inhabitants of the Aleutians was dismal to say the least.
Today the people are proud of their heritage and they owe much to the Russian Orthodox Church.