Sat, March 29, 2014

The Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Five Alutiiq Villages as Revealed by the 1964 Earthquake

by Rachel Mason, adapted from Nancy Yaw Davis’s 1970 article, “The Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Five Pacific Eskimo Villages as Revealed by the Earthquake,” in the Committee on the Alaska Earthquake report The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Human Ecology Volume, Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, pp. 125-146.
The Great Alaska Earthquake was a terrible disaster for residents of five Alutiiq villages in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago. It destroyed the Alaska Native (then known to themselves as Aleut, to the academic community as Pacific Eskimo, and today known as Alutiiq or Sugpiaq) villages of Chenega, Kaguyak, and Afognak, and greatly damaged Old Harbor and Ouzkinkie.

Pre-earthquake map showing villages of Chenega,
Kaguyak, and Afognak.

Anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis lived in Anchorage at the time of the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964. In the following weeks, she interviewed residents of the destroyed village of Kaguyak and the nearly destroyed village of Old Harbor who had been evacuated to Red Cross-operated shelters in Anchorage. In 1965, she traveled to interview the residents of three additional Alutiiq communities: Afognak (whose residents were relocated to Port Lions), Ouzinkie, and Chenega. From the beginning of her research, it was evident to Davis that the Russian Orthodox Church played an important role in villagers’ explanations of the disaster and their willingness to leave the original village and relocate to another site. The research would result in Davis’s 1971 doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington: “The Effects of the 1964 Earthquake, Tsunami and Resettlement on Two Koniag Eskimo Villages.”
The following excerpts are from Nancy Yaw Davis’s article in the multi-volume report on the earthquake published by the National Academy of Sciences. I have focused on the experiences of the three villages that were completely destroyed and not rebuilt: Chenega, Kaguyak, and Afognak.
The Importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alutiiq villages:
One of the most lasting influences of the Russian period in Alaska (1742-1847) was the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. (p. 128)
In all five villages, the church is a prominent landmark. Each building is well cared for and often has been constructed on land slightly higher than the rest of the community. Each church has at least 60 icons. Chenega reportedly had more than 100 icons. (p. 128)

Chenega before the 1964 earthquake.

The only village-wide activities are church-related ones. As a woman in Chenega said when asked about social activities, “Church is mostly what we do.” Even in the three villages, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie, and Afognak, where Protestant missions were gaining support before the earthquake, the Russian holidays are shared by all the native community. No other institution touches so many of the people as deeply, consistently, and thoroughly as the Russian church. (p. 129)
The first wave struck Chenega before the ground had stopped shaking. The water caught and carried out 23 of the 76 residents, most of their homes, and their church. (p. 132)
The significance of the church was reflected in the frequent references made to this institution by the villagers. Several survivors who were near the church site in the center of the village mentioned seeing the building crack, bow, and break apart. No other building was mentioned. (p. 132)
Several people said that if the church had stood they would have stayed in Chenega, but since it was gone, they were willing to be evacuated to Cordova. (p. 132)
Three hundred miles away on Kodiak Island, most of the adult men of Kaguyak had worked all day on their near church. Immediately after the earthquake, one of their first concerns was the new building. [The men checking on the church] looked out a church window just in time to see the first surge of water coming over the bank. They ran to join the other villagers who were already scrambling for a small hill behind the village. (pp. 133-134)

Kaguyak in the 1950s. This photo and that of Afognak below were taken
from the boat Evangel during one of the Smith family’s mission trips to
the Kodiak area villages. Photos from Tim Smith’s website:

[After the third wave, h]ouses were pulled up and forced into the lake. The first building to go was their new church. This loss, perhaps more than anything up to that point, upset the people:
“When I see that church I was crying all over the place…And the wave took it away from us. Nothing left in that village. Everything all gone.” (pp. 134-135)
[In Afognak, where Protestant missionaries had been working], the movie King of Kings was to be shown on Good Friday morning. (p. 135)
When the earthquake began the immediate response in Afognak was similar in that in each of the other communities: open the doors, turn off the stove, gather the children, get out of the house, and watch the tides. Moderate concern was shown for the church building; the lay reader instructed his eldest son to check on it. When the son reached the church, he was amazed to find that no oil had been spilled from the altar vessels and only one old icon had fallen. Soon other people began to gather by the church, “to watch the tides,” they said. The lay reader’s house became the major center of activity throughout the night (p. 135)

Afognak in the 1950s.

The Russian church building in Afognak, like that in Old Harbor, withstood the tsunami well. Although houses near the church were washed off their foundations and pushed into the trees, the church was not moved. (p. 136)
Like the Chenegans, the people of Kaguyak no longer had a reason for returning to the site of their former village. About 4 weeks after the disaster, the Kaguyak people, with the exception of one family and two unmarried men, had moved to Akhiok…a small village of 90 persons near old Kaguyak, near the southern tip of Kodiak Island. (p. 138)
Kaguyak and Old Harbor residents remained in Anchorage for 5 to 6 weeks before being relocated [the Old Harbor residents back to their village]. In Anchorage, one of the first actions of the villagers was to emphasize to the Red Cross shelter leaders that they were all Russian Orthodox and did not want to be visited by people from other religious groups. (p. 137)
In Afognak the church was still standing, but it did not have the same attraction for the village people that the churches in the other three villages did. More important to Afognak villagers was the fact that their wells had been contaminated and their roads were being washed away by the tides that now came up into the village. The building of a new church was only one of the points raised at the meeting with the Lions International, the 49th District Lions, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives, who helped the village move and rebuild. (pp. 138-139)
Unlike the people of Chenega, Kaguyak, and Old Harbor, the people of Afognak when interviewed did not constantly and spontaneously refer to their church, nor did the blame the missionaries for the disaster. However, one older woman is reported to have said, “The reason we are having the earthquake is because it was Good Friday and they were showing a movie, and God was mad.” (p. 136)

Explanations were seldom spontaneously volunteered by the Chenegans, the people most severely affected. Even when asked specifically, informants usually changed the subject or quietly commented, “I don’t know.” The question probably was too disturbing to answer. There was an aura of fear. One person said, “There was something evil down there or something.” In contrast to the reticent response by Chenegans, Kaguyakans gave frequent, spontaneous, elaborate, and church-oriented explanations of the disaster. (p. 142)