The August pilgrimage to Spruce Island, just off the coast of Kodiak, is a yearly event for Orthodox believers in Alaska and the world over. The ritual celebrates the canonization of St. Herman, a Russian missionary who arrived with the early fur traders and soon became a major part of Alutiiq history.
Bells toll out through a silent evergreen forest, calling pilgrims from the beach at Monk’s Lagoon on Spruce Island. Following a small procession of bishops and priests, they make their way up a moss-carpeted trail to a small clearing in the woods.
More than a hundred Orthodox believers congregate around a small whitewashed chapel in the clearing for a service in English, Russian, and Alutiiq. Some boated in from the nearby village of Ouzinkie, and others hail from as far away as Ukraine, all to pay homage to the first Orthodox saint in North America.
“It’s inspiring, it’s uplifting. My soul feels more at peace,” says Joseph Evon, a seminarian from the mainland village of Napaskiak. “Everybody’s really happy.”
He’s not alone in his sentiment.
“Oh it means the world,” says Jennifer Torson after the service. “This place is — I always tell my kids, this is my favorite place on Earth. I love Monk’s Lagoon. Always have.”
Torson, an Alutiiq Orthodox believer, grew up on the other end of Spruce Island in Ouzinkie. “So every year that I could ever remember, we’ve come to Monk’s Lagoon. That was before they canonized Father Herman to a saint. After they did that we’ve faithfully come every year that we can.”
For Alutiiq people, St. Herman isn’t just a religious icon, he’s an active part of their history.
Herman arrived in the late 1700’s while Kodiak was a fur-trading outpost and the first capital of Russian America under Alexander Baranof. At the time, Baranof and his traders rampantly abused native people, forcing men to hunt for sea otter pelts, enslaving women as concubines, and beating dissenters with devil’s club branches.
Herman set about changing that, according to Sven Haakanson, an Alutiiq anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Washington.
“He was able to stop I think the loss of our people,” Haakanson says. “He was one of the ones involved in stopping Baranof and involved in making sure that we are still here today.”
Herman sent letters about the atrocities back to St. Petersburg. He set up an orphanage for children left parentless by the Russians, and started baptizing those who wanted to be baptized.
That last one ended up causing problems for him. Because, once Natives were baptized, they had to be treated as citizens. “If they weren’t baptized, then [Russian traders] could do whatever they want with them,” Haakanson adds. “And that’s what they did.”
The protections of citizenship prevented traders from exploiting Native labor — and that was bad for business. So, Herman was eventually exiled to Spruce Island.
Banished, Herman continued to care for Native people, setting up a school and tending to those who fell ill due to the foreign diseases of the Russian newcomers. Herman wasn’t officially canonized until 1970, but by that time his legacy was already a part of Alutiiq oral history.
Haakanson, who was raised in the Kodiak village of Old Harbor says, “When we were growing up the elders talked about him like he was alive on the other end of the island.”
At this year’s pilgrimage, many Native attendees told similar stories of Herman’s deeds.
“He stopped a tidal wave with the picture of the Mother of God. And he stopped a forest fire from destroying where they lived. I know there’s a lot of miracles,” said Torson.
“Somebody ran up and told him there was an earthquake and there was tidal wave come so he came down the line down here on the beach and that’s as far as it went,” said Evon, pointing out at the beach the pilgrims arrived at a few hours earlier.
Orthodoxy is still central to Alutiiq life in many parts of the archipelago, in no small part because of what Herman and other missionaries did to protect their followers. And in kind, Alutiiq culture shaped the way the religion is practiced, from the style of iconography to the rhythms of traditional hymns.
Of course, Orthodox Christianity has since spread to the rest of North America, but its roots remain in early Russian settlements like Kodiak, where Native believers continue to keep it alive.