In the small Alaskan town of Eklutna, located about 25 miles outside of Anchorage, sits a tiny church known as the old Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church. Outside of the famous church sits a tiny graveyard that draws regular visitations from both tourists and curiosity-seekers alike. Both sites, as well as a modern functional Russian Orthodox church are part of the Eklutna Historical Park. The historic church serves as a tourist attraction today and has a long history. It was originally constructed in the town of Knik in the early 1800’s but later moved to Eklunta around the year 1900. And even though the old church is the oldest standing structure in the entire Anchorage area, it’s just a small reason why people come to visit the historical area. The small church cemetery, on the other hand, is a rare sight when compared to others in the area or even others across the world . It’s legendary because it contains more than one hundred tiny colorful wooden spirit houses that reveal how something beautiful emerged when two cultures came together long ago.
For almost a thousand years, small villages of Tanaina natives (now known as Dena’ina) Athabascan Indians dotted the habitable areas of the Alaskan coastline and some of the hospitable areas of the interior. These people were also known as Knaiakhotana and were culturally related to other Northwest Coast tribes such as the Tlingit. Spirit houses have been seen in other North American tribes, however multi-colored spirit houses are considered a unique trait of the Dena’ina.
Long ago, the Dena’ina cremated their dead and they had no official graveyards. The family of the deceased would place their ashes in a basket near the river in preparation for the journey to the afterlife. It was an age old tradition that would likely still be practiced if not for the arrival of Russian missionaries to Alaska in the early 1800’s.
Russian Orthodox missionaries began converting native Alaskans as early as 1830 and slowly over time, most of the natives had joined the church. As the years went by, the two cultures meshed together and they found common ground on nearly everything. There were a few differences. One significant subject was funerary practices; Russian Orthodox practitioners buried their dead and the religion prohibited cremation. The natives, not wanting to violate the rules of their new religion came up with an alternative to ashes in a basket. They built spirit houses.
From Death Until Crossing
The church believed that the spirit took 40 days to make the long journey from the grave to heaven/the afterlife. The Dena’ina wanted to make certain the spirits of the dead would not bother the living during that period, so they went through a special process after someone passed.
The earthen graves were first covered with stones, then a blanket is placed over top. This symbolizes warmth and comfort for the soul of the newly deceased. Finally, wooden spirit houses were built, painted and then placed over the grave. It’s been determined that size mattered; bigger houses meant the person was important in the village. The houses were painted in the family colors with married couples often painted as a combination of the colors of both families. Family members would put important items of the deceased inside their spirit house. These could include guns, knives, jewelry, or heirlooms.
There are more than one hundred spirit houses throughout the Eklutna graveyard. Some are more elaborate than others and have glass windows and even porches and cupolas. One has a tiny house built inside the larger one to indicate a child buried alongside its mother.
Other Spirit Houses Around the World
Alaska is not the only place in the world where spirit houses can be found. The practice was common among many other North American Native tribes long ago. There are sites in the upper Midwest where other versions can be observed. The most noticeable differences are the lack of color and the Orthodox crosses.
Asian nations have spirit houses, but the meaning and use are quite different. Theirs are more like a shrine designed to provide resting place for restless spirits that need to be appeased, lest they cause mischief. Home owners place the elaborate houses in auspicious spots on their property and leave regular offerings on the ‘porches’ of the tiny structures.
About 70 permanent native residents live within the boundaries of the municipality. It is one of the oldest inhabited villages in the area, with archeological evidence dating back over 800 years. In addition to the churches and the spirit houses, visitors can experience outdoor-Alaska in it’s full splendor. The park is home to 27 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as kayaking and camping in the summer months. The scenery is breathtaking, especially around Eklutna Lake, where the high peaks of the Chugach Mountains can be seen in all their splendor. Additionally, many flock to Thunderbird Falls, a beautiful waterfall that’s worth taking time for.
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