Throughout our nation’s history, religious freedom has been praised more than practiced. This conflict has been especially destructive in the ways that the dominant society has opposed the religions of Native Americans and used Christian churches and institutions to impose mainstream American culture on indigenous communities.
The religious oppression of Native Americans has been most deliberate and oppressive in English-speaking, predominately Protestant parts of North America. French-speaking Catholic enclaves in the north and Spanish-speaking Catholic cultures in the south were willing to allow modest amounts of Native American spirituality to be integrated into their new world versions of Catholic worship, faith, and life.
According to Michael Oleksa, a more positive example of the cultural adaptation of Christian faith and Native American life developed in Alaska during the years of Russian control. Although his book Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission was published in 1998, the story that he tells continues to be relevant for all who are interested in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.
I read the book in 2002, only four years after its publication, but my review has not been published. It comes to mind a decade later because the Christian doctrine of discovery is one of the topics for reflection and research at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) meeting in Orlando, Florida. The document to be discussed was developed at the initiative of David Bell, director of the Yakama Christian Mission, and its sponsors include nine Disciples congregations in Washington and Oregon.
The materials prepared for the Assembly state that early leaders of the Disciples movement held attitudes about this topic that were similar to those held by their peers around the nation. The sponsors of this document for reflection and research believe that this process of study will add an important element in the desire of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) “to become a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” To download a PDF of the resolution as it has been presented to the Assembly, click Discovery.
Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission, by Michael Oleksa (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998). A Review by Keith Watkins
During the late 1950s I toured the Russian Orthodox Church in Fort Ross, California, which marked the southern most penetration of Russian settlers along the northern Pacific coast during the age of discovery. Following that brief visit, I had given no further attention to the American history of Orthodoxy until the summer of 2002 when a brief excursion along Alaska’s southeast coast extended my knowledge of the Russian Orthodox impact upon North America. I visited three of the tourist stops: St. Nicholas Church in Juneau, the Orthodox Cathedral in Sitka, and the restored Bishop’s House in Sitka, now owned and managed, except for the chapel, by the National Park Service.
The background for understanding these places was provided by Michael Oleksa’s Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission that was brought to my attention at a bookstore in Juneau and by a brief conversation in a second bookstore with the author’s daughter Ekatrina Oleksa.
The author, for thirty years an Alaskan Orthodox missionary and since 1996 dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, begins with two longstanding principles of Orthodox Christian mission: that the Logos of God is to be incarnated into the language and customs of a country and that an indigenous church is to be developed that will “sanctify and endorse the people’s personality.” Oleksa shows that Orthodoxy became an “integral part” of indigenous Native American culture in Alaska and claims that this is the only place in America where Orthodoxy and an American culture have become so integrated. He proposes that an American Orthodox theology of mission should originate from Alaska to serve the rest of the nation and “contribute to the clarification of Orthodox theology for the entire universal Church as well.”
Oleksa gives a truncated account of Russian exploration and occupation of the Aleutian archipelago and southeast coast, noting that military and commercial activities were destructive of indigenous cultures. The monks and other representatives of the Orthodox Church, however, came with a different purpose. Their spirituality provided positive connections with Native American attitudes. They studied Native American religions with a sympathetic attitude and defended Native people from Russian exploitation, especially in the Kodiak region. The result was that nearly all of the people around Kodiak were baptized during the first two years of the mission, establishing a church of some 7,000 people. The Orthodox influence spread among other Native peoples and the church became well established among them. Continue reading. . . .
To read more, click Orthodox Alaska.
Although I wrote a book on the history of the Yakama Christian Mission, I was unaware of the doctrine of discovery at the time I developed this manuscript. The book would have been strengthened if I had been able to include this part of the history. To order the book, which was published by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, click A Visible Sign of God’s Presence.