The Spirit Houses of Russian Alaska

by MSO
colorful spirit houses built over the graves at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska.

Many of the spirit houses in the graveyard at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska were built almost 200 years ago when Alaska was a Russian colony.

In 1873, Catherine, Empress of All the Russias, issued an edict that would see missionaries journey from Russia to Russian America and by the following year 18 priests had arrived. The Russian fur traders who had been there for years didn’t get along with the missionaries and the Natives were hostile to both groups for usurping their land.

But the missionaries persisted and began building churches and by 1880 claimed that they had converted 10,000 Alaskan natives to the Russian Orthodox faith.

Among these converts were the Tanaina, now called Dena’ina, Athabaskan Indians who lived around the village of Eklutna located about 25 miles north of Anchorage. The Russian missionaries built a church, somewhere around 1830 and called it St. Nicholas. A graveyard soon sprung up around it.

Before the Russian missionaries arrived the Dena’ina cremated their dead and placed the ashes in a birch bark basket which was put in a tree or by the  riverside. They believed that the deceased spirit would then travel to the “High Country”. Once they began converting to Russian Orthodoxy, the church told them that they could no longer cremate their dead. So in order for the spirits to make their final journey the Dena’ina began building spirit houses over the graves so their relatives would have a place to go. According to church belief the spirit needs 40 days to make the journey from the grave to Heaven. The converted Dena’ina still retained enough of their old beliefs to want to ensure that the spirits would not bother the living but would stay in the spirit houses they built until their journey was completed.

a black and white postcard from Eklutna, Alaska showing the spirit houses

A postcard from 1930 of the spirit houses in Eklutna, Alaska.

The graves are covered with stones, dug out from the rocky terrain and a blanket is placed over it as it is meant to warm and comfort the soul. Wooden spirit houses that families have built are then placed over the grave. There are more than 100 of these spirit houses throughout the graveyard. Some are more elaborate than others and have glass windows and even porches and cupolas. The size of the houses is often determined by the importance of the person in the community or by the extent of the grief of the family remaining.  The spirit houses are painted in the family colors and married couples often painted theirs as a combination of the colors of both families. Little houses built inside a house represent the graves of a mother and her child who passed away together. Fences around the spirit houses indicate that the person buried there didn’t live in the community. Prized possessions, such as hunting knives, guns and books were placed in the spirit houses as well.

Most of the spirit houses are not kept up as their religious tradition says that it is not necessary because, as is written in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:20  “All came from the dust and all return to the dust.”

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