This paper will discuss characteristics of the rise of the Creole population of Alaska during the regime of the Russians. This aspect of the North American colonization is often overlooked in historical accounts. The Creoles (offspring of Russian promyshlenniki and Alaska Natives) served the capitalistic ventures of the Russians as middlemen, Russian-American Company clerks, fur gatherers, wives, translators, seamen, and in many other roles. The Creoles, a class of subjects in the czarist regime, became a distinct people.
Without the cooperation of the Alaska Natives, the expansion of the Russians onto the North American continent would never have been accomplished. It was through the efforts of the Creoles and the Alaska Natives that the Russians were able to survive in conditions which were foreign to them. Alaska Natives greatly outnumbered the adventurers who came to Alaska with the intent of accumulating great sums of wealth from the fur trade. The cooperation of the Alaska Native was crucial to the venture.
The story of the Creoles is one unlike any other colonial experience. There was near 100% literacy among the Creole. Creoles (and many Alaska Natives) were fluently bilingual speaking both Russian and the local language. The rise of a distinct Creole culture is evident from the works of literature, art, and religious writings produced during the tenure of the Russians. Creoles became the middle class of Russian America.
With the cession of Russian America and the departure of the Russians from North America, the Creoles were left behind. They were offered haven in the motherland but many had ties to Alaska and chose to stay. They were reabsorbed in the Alaska Native populations as the Americans did not recognize the distinct cultural differences between the Creoles and the Alaska Natives. To the Americans, Creoles and the culture which sprang from the Russian experience were to be eradicated. Efforts were made to remove any trace of the Russian language and the Native adherence to the Orthodox religion which had become dominant during the Russian era. Although guarantees were written into the Treaty of Cession for religious rights, the American Protestant missionaries objected to the presence and competition from the Russian church. The arrival of the Americans harkened dark times for the people who had become literate, culturally unique, and a part of the Russian culture.
The Russians made first landfall in Alaska in July of 1741. The first instance was the ship, St. Paul, under the command of Alexi Chirikov. Two boats carrying crew of the St. Paul came ashore on an island in the Alexander Archipelago. They failed to return to the ship (Haycox, n.d.: 9).
The second landfall was a day later on Kayak Island near Cape St. Elias by a vessel under the command of Vitus Bering. Bering's exploration ended in tragedy when on their return voyage to Russia they were shipwrecked on one of the Commander Islands where many of the crew died from scurvy (Haycox, n.d.: 9).
This tenuous start on the North American continent continued. There was never any intention to establish permanent colonies in the New World. During the early stages of colonization, the Russian government never asserted its rights to the islands between Asia and America which were frequented by the promyshlenniki. At that time, Russia was too concerned with its European interests. Policy was laissez-faire. The czarist regime "had neither the resources nor the opportunities for an active policy on the Pacific Ocean" (Makarova, 1975: 2-3). Alaska was seen as a natural resource storehouse to be exploited by the Russian promyshlenniki.
CREOLES IN ALASKA
The "discovery" of Alaska was the result of the activity of the fur-trapping enterprises. From 1743-1755, the majority of fur gathering activity took place in the Commander and the Near Islands. These islands were near enough to Kamchatka that outfitting an expedition remained relatively affordable for most interested in the venture. "The search for, and catching of fur bearing animals was accompanied by important geographical discoveries, in the course of which Russian skippers discovered the entire Aleutian chain and reached the shores of North America" (Makarova, 1975: 115). Even with the proximity of Kamchatka to the early hunting grounds, equipping these forays were beyond the fiscal means of an individual. This gave rise to the merchant companies (95). These merchant companies shared the fur sale profits between the investors, the crew, and the government. The fur trade reached its peak between 1760 and 1780 (77).
The Russians transformed the cultures with which they came in contact. One means by which the help of the Alaska Natives was enlisted was through the giving of gifts. The technology of the Russians was superior to that of the Natives. The cooking pots, guns, iron tools, sewing needles, and decorative beads were novelties for the Alaska Natives. They went to great lengths to obtain these goods.
Another technique used by the Russians was the installation of sympathetic Native officials. The Russians bestowed titles and rank on the chief or "big men" (Pierce, 1988: 119). This technique was one of the most efficient for the Russians as it minimized the coercion required to divert the Alaska Natives from their traditional hunting and gathering activities. The chiefs and "big men" would send their own men out to gather the furs.
The Russians also resorted to kidnapping (Pierce, 1988: 120). The hostages were taken back to Russia to learn the Russian language. Once schooled by the Russians, the Natives were returned to their villages, given a rank and title, and became leaders of the village. "The promyshlenniki attempted to draw in capable Aleut boys, to teach them Russian and reading, to baptize them and give them Russian names, to raise them as Russians, and even to take them away for a time to Kamchatka and Okhotsk to show them Russia itself. Some of these boys became capable interpreters... Through this process people trained in the Russian language and in the basics of the Christian faith and Russian cultural traditions began to appear in the Aleut communities" (Liapunova, 1987: 111). Their obligations to the Russians were settled by providing hunters for the fur gathering venture.
A fourth technique by which the aid of the Native peoples was enlisted was baptism. A laymen is allowed to perform certain rites in the Russian Orthodox faith. In the absence of a priest, the promyshlenniki would baptize the Natives. "Native people were baptized by the thousands and given Russian names. Many of these newly Russified natives were rewarded for their conversion by being released from paying taxes to the Cossack rulers and by promises of employment by the hunters and traders. This conversion of native people, Russian/native marriages, baptizing of children, and promises of religiously determined economic gain laid a foundation for religious conversion policies established in Siberia and the Far East that would be used later in North America" (Hardwick, 1993: 52). This practice established a relationship between the promyshlenniki godfathers and the recipients of the sacrament. The relationship was intensified because of the obligation of the godfathers to their godchildren. "In Russian ideology, godparents are responsible for spiritual and educational needs of their godchildren" (Black, 1989: 93). In the absence of the clergy, the "Russian laymen performed what religious rituals they could, principally baptism of the native peoples they encountered on the Aleutian Islands" (Shalkop, 1987: 197). This first step toward Russification changed the status of the Native peoples. "A new convert through baptism became a Russian citizen, was given a Russian social rank (soslovie), and was entitled to receive elementary education" (205). The entry of the Alaska Native into the ranks of Russian culture took place under the premise of enlightenment and salvation.
These techniques of enlisting the aid of the Alaska Native peoples were quite successful. Without the help of the Natives, the Russians would not have been able to carry on the trade. This put the Natives in the precarious position of supporting the activities of the fur trade. Even though the trade radically disrupted their traditional lifestyle, the need for and convenience afforded by the Russian trade goods convinced the Natives that there was great benefit to be gained from participation in the trade.
Socially and culturally the Russian interaction with the Alaska Natives altered both the Russians and the Natives. "Often they [Russian promyshlenniki] would live in the Aleuts' yurts [barabaras], adopt their food, clothing, and kayaks, marry Aleut women, and generally assimilate to the Aleut way of life... the process of Russian cultural and educational penetration of the aboriginal community continued" (Liapunova, 1987: 120).
In addition, the activities of the Church transformed the family structure of the Alaska Native culture. "By the end of the eighteenth century the spread of Christianity by the Russian clergy had caused marriage relations of the Aleuts to undergo significant changes toward strengthening the pairing family. The decline in the size of Aleut yurts [sic]... indicated that the large family was being crowded out by the pairing family and consequently the primitive communal society was breaking up" (Makarova, 1975: 82).
The Russians, through their interactions with the Alaska Natives, were effective in altering the Natives' cultures.
Education was another instrument of colonial domination. The schools were most effective in areas where the Russians had the most contact (i.e. the Aleutians). "All the children of company officials, without regard to rank or title, studied in this all colonial academy [at Novoarkhangelsk (Sitka)]. Those who attended this academy at the company's expense were required to work in a colonial position for a period of ten years. This way the company made every effort to secure a work force for the colonies by attracting a locally educated labor force, including creoles" (Okladnikova, 1987: 239). Many of the Creole students continued their studies in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg. As there were no schools for advanced studies in the colonies, the students were forced to go to Russia to further their education. "Each year there were between five and twelve students in Russia studying maritime, commercial, and medical sciences" (241). The schools were an effective tool in the Russian colonization process.
The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the transformation of the cultures of the Alaska Natives cannot be underestimated. "Christianity played a crucial role in the tsarist policy toward the 'foreigners' and was called upon to bring about more successful colonization and Russification of the native populace; it also served the goal of drawing the natives closer to the Russian population" (Liapunova, 1987: 127). With the arrival of the first missionaries in 1794, the relationship between the Russians and the Alaska Natives was forever changed.
The Church, while closely linked to the activities of the Russian American Company, was very sensitive to the needs and Company's treatment of the Natives. The Church acted as an advocate during the period when the Company had not yet been mandated to treat the Alaska Natives with respect. "Numerous letters were sent to St. Petersburg after 1795 protesting the verbal abuse and physical harassment inflicted on the native residents of the colony" (Hardwick, 1993: 59). This advocacy continued even after the czarina Catherine had ordered that the Company treat the Alaska Natives with respect (Haycox, n.d.: 10-11).
There were many similarities between the animistic religion of the Alaska Natives and the distinct form of Christianity known as Orthodoxy. "The candles, incense, and mysticism of Orthodox churches undoubtedly attracted people who had long practiced a form of mystical worship. They had lived for centuries believing in a series of superstitions, rituals, and structure of behaviors that would increase the likelihood of success in life. Many of the spiritual beliefs of the native Americans resembled the beliefs of the Orthodox missionaries" (Hardwick, 1993: 56). It was Creole missionaries who "brought literacy and Christianity to their own and to neighboring tribes, developing writing systems and undertaking the work of translation into heretofore unwritten languages. They founded schools and produced the textbooks" (Oleksa, 1990: 188).
The Church utilized methods of conversion which facilitated their adoption by the Alaska Native peoples. The techniques which the Church used made the conversion of Alaska Natives more tolerable than those used by the Americans. In their efforts toward conversion, the Church used the local languages. The ritualism employed by the Church closely matched the symbology of the Alaska Native cultures. The practice of using local clergy made the conversion to Orthodoxy more palatable to the Alaska Native. Many aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church were coincident with the belief systems of the Alaska Native.
"Christianity played a crucial role in the tsarist policy toward the 'foreigners' and was called upon to bring about more successful colonization and Russification of the native populace; it also served the goal of drawing the natives closer to the Russian population" (Liapunova, 1987: 127). The policies of the Russian Orthodox Church were one of the primary influences of the Russian occupation of Alaska. While the Company directed daily activities during the occupation, the Church played a significant role in the transformation of the Alaska Native culture. Church and state were not separated in czarist Russia.
Creoles figured prominently in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. "The lower ranks of creoles... made up the majority of the ecclesiastical class in Alaska" (Shalkop, 1987: 215). One Creole, Iakov Netsvetov, was canonized in 1995. This Aleut from Atka served first in his home parish and later at the Church's mission on the Kuskokwim. He and Saint Innocent (Ioann Veniaminov) created a written system for the Atkan dialect of Aleut. This written system (based on cyrillic) was the foundation for the literacy which sprang up in the Aleutians (Oleksa, 1990: 188). "Through its educational efforts, therefore, the Orthodox mission played the central role in the formation of Creole/Aleut culture" (187). This new culture was one which was unique among mixed peoples.
The distinctions between Creoles and Alaska Natives were subtle. They were based more on behaviors and identity than on any strictly defined racial characteristics. "Creoles combined elements of two cultures, often spoke two languages, and later could read and write two or more, but were not necessarily biologically 'mixed.' To be Creole was more a matter of the spirit, a state of mind, a question of self-identity" (Oleksa, 1990: 185). Creoles did not forsake their Native heritage. Many continued to live off the land. The Creoles were granted special status by the Russian government. They were exempt from the iasak (ten-percent tax on the proceeds of the fur trade). They were recognized as distinct peoples by the government and were given preference in Company hiring (185). "The Natives of Russian America were cast into an extremely difficult position similar to that of the serfs of prereform Russia" (Liapunova, 1987: 105). "After 1821, all Native Alaskans who pledged their political allegiance to the tsar and became thereby 'naturalized citizens' were considered 'Creoles'" (Oleksa, 1990: 185). Differentiating between the Native Alaskans and the Creoles was a very difficult task.
"The active fur trading of the Russian and Siberian merchantry led not only to the enrichment of various merchants, but contributed to the process of primary accumulation of capital in Russia in the second half of the eighteenth century" (Makarova, 1975: 116).
This accumulation of capital was extracted from the labors of the Alaska Natives, the Creoles, and the Siberian promyshlenniki. While these parties in the fur trade were payed a company wage, economic dependence on the Company resulted (115-6). "The system for exploiting the natives... was the basis of the company's well-being" (Liapunova, 1987: 139).
In 1861, serfdom was abolished in Russia. "Government trade policy aided the development of the new bourgeois relations, which were incompatible with the existing feudal order" (Makarova, 1975: 94-5). The status of the employees of the Russian American Company changed little during the six years up to the sale of Alaska to the Americans.
Some considered the labor of the Native population a form of bondage or forced labor. "The Russian American Company was subject within Russia to the accusation of having introduced slavery into its American possessions. It was vulnerable to this charge" (Liapunova, 1987: 143). "The Natives of Russian America were cast into an extremely difficult position similar to that of the serfs of prereform Russia... and to other cruelly exploited working peoples" (Liapunova, 1987: 105). The status of the Alaska Natives was one of dependence.
With the sale of Alaska another radical transformation took place. The Creoles were displaced from their positions within the Company. Protestant missionaries did what they could to eradicate the presence of Orthodoxy. The form of natural resource exploitation changed from that associated with the fur trade to one concentrated on fisheries and resource extraction. Within this framework there were few jobs for the Alaska Natives. For the second time in a little more than 100 years, the culture of the Alaska Natives (and their Creole brothers) was changed.
The Russian presence in Alaska continues to be felt. The effects that the Russians had on the Alaska Native cultures was profound. The Russians irrevocably altered the culture of the Native peoples of Alaska.
"Alaskan natives and lands were undeniably Russified. Evidences of the Russian language and social customs linger today. Nowhere is this Russian-American connection more evident than in the retention of the Russian Orthodox religion in the region" (Hardwick, 1993: 71). The writer can personally attest to the fact that Russian names are still given to people. Villages retain their Russian names. The Church is vital and continues to be the foundation of many villages. The canonization of the Creole, Iakov Netsvetov, is testament to the importance the Church has and the crucial role the Creoles assumed in Church leadership. The Church is a permanent reminder of the presence of the Russians in Alaska.
The Creoles were vital to the economic system of the fur trade. They were also responsible for the rise of literacy in the years of Russian America. The Creoles were an integral part of the Russian system. The development of Alaska was unique. This fact stems in part from the role played in that development by the Creoles.
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