Project Slawilutiiq: Translating Russian and Alutiiq History

members_of_church_slavonic_and_alutiiq_group.jpgMembers of the Slawilutiiq Project. Safronova-Simeonoff first on left and Matfay Christiansen Pestrikoff third from left. Photo by Jill HH Lipka at the Baranov Museum

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

One Kodiak College teacher will give a lecture tonight about a linguistics project she’s been working on with a group of Alutiiq elders in Kodiak. It combines hymns, the Alutiiq language, and old Russian.

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Daria Safronova-Simeonoff is an archivist at St. Herman’s Theological Seminary and a Russian instructor at Kodiak College. For the last three and a half years, she’s held weekly gatherings to study these two languages in Russian Orthodox hymns.

She says Church Slavonic is rooted deep in religious tradition, both abroad and in Alaska.

“All these languages – Bulgarian, Serbian, Russian, Ukrainian – they changed, but they still kept worshipping in Church Slavonic,” says Safronova-Simeonoff. “This language unites all those nations. So when the first missionaries came to Alaska, they started worshipping in church Slavonic.”

Florence Matfay Christiansen Pestrikoff is an Alutiiq language teacher. She says she grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Church Slavonic.

“Layreaders had to teach us the prayers, and they taught us in the Russian language we thought and when Daria came to Kodiak, I asked her what those words were. [Says Prayer] And she told me,” says Matfay Christiansen Pestrikoff. “And I was just so happy to finally know what I was saying.”

Safronova-Simeonoff says Matfay Christiansen Pestrikoff was the first elder to join the group, which she calls the Slawilutiiq Project.

“So, it’s Slavonic pronounced with an Alutiiq accent and Alutiiq,” Safronova-Simeonoff says.

Safronova-Simeonoff says when she first arrived in Kodiak, she dug through local archives and saw records of Alutiiq church hymns. She took one to the Alutiiq language club.

“…and read it to the elders, wondering would they understand me still? And when I read the first chapters, they looked at me with great surprise and asked me where I learned their language. I said, well, I don’t know your language, but I can read the Cyrllic letters in which your language is written.”

The Cyrillic alphabet was originally a Slavic writing system. Safranova-Simeonoff says she wanted to learn Alutiiq, but she also wanted her group to learn Church Slavonic.

“The idea – the romantic idea – was to ask elders to learn the alphabet themselves to become literate in this church Slavonic alphabet so that they could read it again as their ancestors could do,” says Safronova-Simeonoff.

Safronova-Simeonoff says that some of the Alutiiq hymns were translated in the 19th century and the language has since changed. She says that’s partly because some of the words didn’t pop up everyday.

“Do we often discuss biblical matters at home drinking a cup of tea?” says Safronova-Simeonoff. “Do you ask your friend, and how did your conscious feel today? How about repentance for tomorrow? How often do you discuss your soul in an everyday conversation?”

She says the group has debated over words, discussed translations, and eaten a variety of Russian foods at their weekly meetings. They’ve also received help putting the hymns to music.

Now, they can sing the songs in church. Safronova-Simeonoff says she wants the prayers to be accessible to everyone across religions and cultures.

She and several other members of the project will speak about their progress at 7pm for the Baranov Museum’s History Speaks Lecture series.

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