ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >

Orthodoxy in Alutiiq Life


For nearly two centuries Alutiiqs have practiced Orthodoxy, yet their expressions of faith remain uniquely Alutiiq.  This exhibit explores Orthodoxy in Alutiiq life, from daily devotions, to the observance of life events, and the celebration of Church holidays. Click the title above to open the exhibit to begin your exploration of Alutiiq spirituality.


old harborsm.jpg

Three Saints Church, Old Harbor, Alutiiq Museum Library



Chapel of the Ascension of Our Lord, Karluk

Russia’s Legacy

Russian colonization had a profound influence on the native cultures of Alaska.  Today, bays, mountains, and streets bear the names of Russian explorers.  The onion domes of Russian Orthodox chapels grace the skies of coastal communities, where the Orthodox faith is central to daily life.

In a clash of cultures that accompanied Russian conquest, Russian missionaries defended the rights of Native people. 

Representatives of the Orthodox faith established schools, cared for the sick, fought atrocities, and even translated church texts into Native languages.  Their concern for the Native community helped build Alaska’s Russian Orthodox community and the traditions still found in many Alutiiq homes and villages today.

Daily Faith

Cross from the historic village on Chirikof Island, USF&WS Collection

Personal Devotion

Personal observance of the Orthodox faith takes many forms. By praying, reading the Bible, venerating Saints, and wearing a baptismal cross, Alutiiqs express their commitment to the faith.   Making the sign of the cross - twice - is one common expression of praying.  Traditionally, Alutiiqs cross themselves upon entering a home, facing the family's icon corner to demonstrate they are in the presence of God.  Similarly, they cross themselves before a meal to give thanks for God’s gifts. When church bells ring, many people will stop for a moment of silence and cross themselves.


Icon Corner, Museum Display

Icon Corners

In many Alutiiq homes there is a small shrine in the corner of the living room where the faithful display icons, usually with a lampada, or oil lamp, suspended in front of the central icon. Families light the lamp on the eve of important events – on Saturdays, holidays, and for passages - births, christenings, marriages, and deaths. Below the icon shrine there is often a table.  In Alutiiq communities, where priests are not always available to lead services, local church readers use the table to hold their religious books. Families also store oil, water, wicks, and their Easter kulich, a sweet bread, on their corner tables.  Many families decorate their icon corner for Christmas, adding lights, ornaments, and Christmas paper. The icon corner is a reminder of the presence of God and a place where family members pray.


Community Faith

Nativity of Our Lord Chapel, Ouzinkie, 1946,
McFadden Collection


Churches are prominent landmarks in Kodiak’s villages. Each Orthodox church has a distinct character, but all share common features.  Outside, blue onion domes adorn church roofs representing the heavens.  Inside, every church has an altar.  An iconostasis, or icon painted screen, separates this focal area from other parts of the worship area. The nave is the central part of the church where the faithful gather for services, sing, read, and venerate icons.  Orthodox churches also have vestibules.  This entryway has special functions for occasions like baptisms and weddings. 

To the church structure, each village adds its own paint, furnishings, and decorations which are often hand-made.  Hand-carved icon frames, crocheted covers, paper flowers, and even locally designed and stitched vestments reflect the contributions of many individuals to community worship.


Clyda Christiansen and daughter in front of Holy Resurrection Church, 1992, Rostad Collection

Community Involvement

After the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, Russian funding for Orthodox churches diminished. With help from community members, Kodiak’s churches became self-reliant.  Native readers and lay people took over local leadership and maintenance.  Community members gave contributions to maintain church buildings and help their priest.

In traditional Alutiiq society women had important economic, social, and spiritual roles. They were shaman and healers, as well as central participants in winter festivals.  Alutiiq women continue their spiritual roles in the context of the Orthodox Church, serving as lay readers, helping to clean and decorate the church, baking Eucharistic bread, and caring for community members. 

Crowning: Crowning is the climax of the wedding service. The crowns refer to the crowns of martyrdom since every true marriage involves immeasurable self-sacrifice by both people.

Marriage: Holy Matrimony is one of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church. The wedding service is steeped in ritual and symbolism. Each of part of the service has special meaning and significance.

Candles: The bride and groom hold candles throughout the service. The light symbolizes the spiritual willingness of the couple to receive Christ, who will bless them through their union.

Baptism of Rosemary Rogers, Rogers Collection


Baptism is a person’s entry into the Church.  This sacrament usually occurs in childhood, with the help of KRaasnaat, or Godparents, who are selected to help a child through life.  Godparents are responsible for purchasing the blanket and clothing an Alutiiq baby needs for baptism and the cross the baby will wear throughout life.  The godparents also hold candles during the baptism and the confirmation of baptism that follows.  During childhood, godparents take their godchildren to church and help to celebrate birthdays, name days, and Christmas.


Akhiok grave marker, Alutiiq Museum library.


When a member of the Alutiiq community dies, family, friends, and neighbors join together to provide a funeral and burial.  A priest and a choir may assemble at a sick person’s home around the time of death to sing softly at their bedside.  After death, the person is washed and dressed for burial, and presented for viewing at home for one night. 

The next day, as church bells toll, villagers gather at the cemetery to assist with burial, placing handfuls of dirt into the grave.  After the funeral there is generally a meal, known as a repast.  Around Kodiak, people bring a great variety of food to share at memorial feasts, including dishes made of favorite subsistence foods.


In Alutiiq communities, the two or three weeks before pastaaq, or Lent, are often a time of celebration.  Before Lent, Alutiiqs eat lots of good food, hold dances, and play games that will be forbidden until after the holiday.  Some people call this time “crazy week.”

Lent is a time of sacrifice and reflection, when the faithful are forbidden to hunt.  Elders describe Lent as a time when families work on their homes or join to clean up the community, repair buildings and fix the church.  It is also a time for quiet visiting, when children are expected to play indoors.  Akhiok Elders remember playing a game where they would cover themselves with blankets while a child tried to guess who was hiding under each one. These restrictions mirror those in classical Alutiiq society, where children were not allowed to play outdoors until the migratory birds returned signaling the rebirth of the year.

The Orthodox faithful celebrate Christmas on January 7th, following the Julian calendar.  Starring, a three night caroling celebration, is a central part of the Christmas tradition.  After attending an evening Church service, the faithful carol throughout their community with a brightly decorated wooden star representing the star of Bethlehem.  At each home, the carolers sing in English, Slavonic, and sometimes Alutiiq, while a person spins the star in front of the home’s icon corner.  Then the singers receive food and hot drinks from their hosts.  Each caroling session ends with a rendition of Many Years, the Orthodox hymn for blessings and long life. Celebrated for several days before the New Year, masking is not a traditional Orthodox event, but stems from Ukrainian folk traditions and traditional Alutiiq winter ceremonies, particularly hunting festivals. Like carolers, maskers traveled from home to home.  Groups of fully disguised men and women dance to see if people can guess their identity.  If they are identified, they must unmask and stop for the evening.  Elders recall that masking sometimes frightened children.  In Karluk it became so terrifying that villagers held the masking ceremony in the community hall.  For adults it was a festive event with music and dancing. People would play the guitar, banjo, accordion, and anything that would make noise.  

Orthodox Easter is a central holiday in Alutiiq communities.  The days leading up to Easter are marked with religious services.  In Akhiok, Easter Sunday begins in church, as worshippers circle the building with lit candles.  In Old Harbor, an egg hunt in the village cemetery follows the liturgy.  Children search for eggs then visit neighbors to announce the resurrection of Christ and trade their finds.  The eggs have Christian and Alutiiq significance. They symbolize both the rebirth of Christ and of the land with the return of migratory birds that foreshadows the coming wealth of summer.  In the days that follow Easter, men ready their gear for fishing.Kulich, is one of the tradition foods served at Alutiiq Easter feasts.  Families break their Lenten fast with this sweet Russian bread representing the risen Christ.  This rich bread contains butter, eggs, and fruit. Kulich loaves are often round as they are baked in a coffee can, and beautifully finished with frosting and candy. Some families take their Kulich to church for a blessing.

Starring in Ouzkine ca. 1940, Courtesy Tim & Nora Smith

Nativity and Starring

Masking in Ouzinkie, photo by Hender Toms,
Melinda Lamp Collection


Augca’aq Set by Tikhon Peterson, Johnson Collection


Easter Bread (Kulich), Ouzinkie, 1948
Courtesy Tim & Nora Smith

Easter Kulich


Right Reverend Archimandrite Gerasim Schmaltz


Mitre decorated by Fr. Gerasim, including sea otter fur. Courtesy Gene & Phyllis Sundberg


Known as a stern, but loving priest, Father Gerasim Schmalz dedicated his life to the Alutiiq people.  As a missionary pastor he served the villages of Afognak and Ouzinkie and traveled to outlying villages to share his faith.  As a monk he revived the monasticism of Saint Herman on Spruce Island.  As a friend he provided spiritual assistance and gave generously of his time and hand made crafts.


Alexin, Russia, Courtesy Gene & Phyllis Sundberg


Father Gerasim was born in 1888 in the town of Alexin, Russia as Michael Aleksandrovich Schmaltz, or “Mischa”.  His religious devotion formed in his hometown.  Many members of his family were devout Christians, and the local priests were admirable men who inspired Mischa.  Alexin was a beautiful place with ancient churches, quaint log cabins, rolling meadows, forests and lakes. It was a place where the young man always envisioned dedicating himself to God.


Religious Studies

In 1907, at the age of 18, Mischa began monastic study at the St. Tikhon of Kaluga Monastery.   His tonsured name was Gerasim, selected in honor of two Gerasims of Kaluga, both important clergymen.  Four years later he left for the St. Andrew Skete on Holy Mt. Athos, Greece, the ancient center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.  Like his homeland, Mt. Athos instilled in him a passion for monasticism.



Father Gerasim remembered the stormy winter journey to Kodiak as frightening.  He arrived in Kodiak alone, far from everyone he knew.  However, hearing people speak Russian and attending the church with its artful icons made him feel at home.




Gerasim traveled to New York City in 1915.  In 1916, he was ordained Hieromonk and moved to Alaska where he worked in Sitka, before being appointed to serve Afognak Village.


Image to left: Father Gerasim as a young Archmandrite, ca. 1915. Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska Collection



Father Gerasim in Afognak Village 1918, photo by Clara Helgason, Courtesy Gene & Phyllis Sundberg

Village Service

For 18 years, Father Gerasim led the Afognak parish.  As community pastor, his duties included ordering supplies and decorating the church.  For the Good Friday service, he would adorn the coffin for Christ’s burial shroud with a paper icon of the Mother of God, “Weep Not For Me, O Mother”.  During the service, a row of candles would be lit near the coffin, in front of the icon. One Orthodox family was particularly inspired by the service and wanted to have a hand painted icon made for the church. Gerasim commissioned an icon from Mt. Athos and it adorned the Afognak church for many years.


Spruce Island

A New Home

In May of 1927, Father Gerasim first visited the site of Father Herman’s Spruce Island hermitage and grave. Father Herman was a priest who cared for Alutiiq people during the early decades of Russian rule on Kodiak, and was cannonized in 1970.

The visit to the heritage changed Father Gerasim's life.  The sun shone brightly. The birds sang cheerfully. Gerasim walked among the spruce trees and thick moss to the Chapel of Saint Sergius and Father Herman of Valaam, stopping to drink spring water believed to have healing powers.  At the chapel, he collected earth from the gravesite of Fr. Herman where an intense fragrance surrounded him. He described it as the scent of paradise.  He left the island praying to Fr. Herman, and asking for his acceptance to live at the hermitage


In 1935, Father Gerasim moved to Monk’s Lagoon on Spruce Island, establishing his hermitage.  He had little money, but with help from the local community, he built a chapel dedicated to the Theotokos of Kaluga on the site of the decayed cell of Fr. Herman, placing his relics within.

Life in the isolated Monk’s Lagoon hermitage was quiet.  As a monk, Father Gerasim spent a majority of his time praying and venerating holy people.  He would also make decorations for his cell and chapel, bake bread, and create gifts, such as dioramas of Christ, for friends. As a sign of homage, he decorated this picture of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church.


Father Gerasim leads Easter services in Ouzinkie, Heinrichs Collection

Village Service

Father Gerasim not only administered church services in Ouzinkie, but he was an integral member of the community. He united young couples in marriage, baptized babies born to his friends, and performed funerals for parishioners he had known.  Father Gerasim also helped the ailing and elderly.  When doctors and midwives could not help, Gerasim prayed and brought holy earth from Fr. Herman’s grave and healing water from the Monk’s Lagoon spring.  Those healed thanked him for his help, though Father would only credit the power of the Saint to whom he had prayed or the holiness of the earth and water.


Beloved Priest

Throughout his life on Afognak and Spruce Islands, Father Gerasim had close ties with the Sundberg family. This was especially true of Gene Sundberg and his sister, Glenace, whose childhood memories are full of warm recollections of time spent with the priest. As Gerasim aged, the people of Ouzinkie worried about his failing health.  If he was feeling poorly, villagers called Gene in Kodiak for help.  Gene would fly to Ouzinkie and spend time caring for Father. When the priest’s health seriously deteriorated, Gene and his wife Phyllis cared for Father Gerasim in their home.  He died October 12, 1969 in Kodiak.

Every year on August 9th there is a one-day pilgrimage to Monk’s Lagoon where the faithful pay tribute to Saint Herman.  Participants attend mass in the lagoon’s small wooden chapel, visit the graves of beloved local priests Father Gerasim Schmaltz and Father Peter Kreta, explore trails, and picnic.  Many people also take a handful of dirt from beneath the chapel where Father Herman was buried.  Some fill bottles with water from a spring near Father Gerasim’s chapel.  People believe that both the soil and water have curative powers. 

The connection between Father Gerasim, the villagers of Afognak and Ouzinkie, and all the people he encountered, was very strong.  He had a profound impact on others, even those who did not share his Orthodox faith.  One couple, who only lived in Ouzinkie for a short time and were not Orthodox, would send him lilies each Easter. To those Gerasim knew dearly, he bestowed many gifts.  He was an avid cross-stitcher, and gave away numerous handbags, seat back covers, and table runners.  In return, people would give him pictures of themselves at important times in their lives, send him icons, oil for lampadas, and cards for Feast Days. 

Crossstitched Handbag by Father Gerasim, Heinrichs Collection



Gene Sundberg, Fr. Gerasim, and Marylin Sundberg,
Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska Collection

The Sundberg Family


Fr. Innocent, Zeedar family, Kevin Lukin at Monk’s Lagoon, 1992. Rostad Collection.