A new discovery at the Baranov Museum shows Russian efforts to preserve the Alutiiq language

Alutiiq Primer recently discovered in the Baranov Museum achieve. (Photo by Mitch Borden/KMXT)

Mitch Borden/KMXT

Treasure can come in all shapes and sizes. For some, only gold or diamonds will do. While others prefer objects that shed light on the past. And recently, the staff at the Baranov Museum struck it big in that department. KMXT reports how a few old pieces of paper rediscovered in the museum’s collection are teaching local historians some interesting lessons.


As she walks into a room full of artifacts, Sarah Harrington, the Baranov Museum’s Executive Director, takes a moment to appreciate its unique aroma.

“It’s a little bit musky maybe, like an old cologne or something like that, but not in a gross way in a good way.”

The museum is Alaska’s oldest building. It was originally built to hold pelts for Russian fur traders when Alaska was a Russian territory. The building’s not very big and Harrington points out that it’s stuffed to its gills with relics of Kodiak’s past.

Walking down a small hallway, she opens door after door to reveal packed storerooms and it becomes clear she’s not exaggerating. Almost every nook and cranny is used to hold the museum’s growing collection.

Harrington: “There are lot of things to store here.”

Borden: “It really does seem like a maze when you start opening up all the doors.”

Harrington: “Yeah, I think it’s, you wouldn’t, it’s rather unassuming from the outside. You just see a couple of doors, but what happens is you just get in one and then all of a sudden, you’re right, it’s a maze that kinda unfolds in front of you.”

Objects gathered by the museum range from a pair of Xtratufs to ancient oil lamps. It has thousands of photographs and a lot of file cabinets full of historical documents.

But there is a downside to having so many interesting things, which is items that deserve more attention are sometimes overlooked. Like the museum’s most recent discovery, an Alutiiq language primer written in Cyrillic that dates back to when Alaska was ruled by Russia.

“The primer is a wonderful example of the efforts the Russian Orthodox people took to preserve the Alutiiq language when they didn’t have a written language. So it’s written in Cyrillic, but if you are able to read Cyrillic you’d be able to read the Alutiiq words.”

The primer’s small. It’s water stained and ripped, but it’s still beautiful. The black Cyrillic letters stand out from the fragile brown pages as they spell out simple Alutiiq words and an Orthodox prayer.

A staff member a few months ago found the book while going through some files but didn’t realize what it was. Then a colleague who can read Cyrillic and speak Alutiiq took a look at it and understood the primers significance.

“It’s a really hopeful thing to find because a lot of times we find ourselves or other people in our community feeling polarized about the Russian story versus the Alutiiq story.”

Harrington, who’s Alutiiq, says this discovery means a lot. The history of Kodiak’s native people, like many indigenous groups, is filled with the horrors of colonialism. And Harrington doesn’t think the primer erases that trauma, but it does show the complicated nature of Kodiak’s story.

“It’s one of the few things we have that shows the cooperativeness that did exist. So often we focus on the heart-wrenching stories of colonization.”

The Baranov Museum holds a lot of history and the primer is just one example of how much there is to learn about Kodiak, which Harrington thinks is exciting.

“You could literally spend your entire life in a place like this and not know all of the stories this museum holds.”

As museum staff continue to research the Alutiiq primer, they’ll be reaching out to other institutions around the state to get a better understanding of the little book’s place in history.

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