Some time ago, I started a story inspired by a trip to Alaska, but I never finished it. I had planned to tell the story of a Danaina Athabaskan Indian Maiden from Elutna, Alaska. I ran short of research information, so I switched to something else, I know better...the old west. Still, I'm fascinated by the over one hundred spirit houses that surround St. Nicholas' church in the historical Eklutna burial ground, so I'm going to share a little info with you. Indian didn't just exist in an area we consider the "old west."
Back in the early 1800s, Catholic missionaries came to Alaska and thrived among the many tribes dwelling at the mouth of the Eklutna River. As was the custom before the arrival of the Russian Orthodox, deceased Athabaskan were cremated by the tribe, but as cultures blended and Catholic belief forbade cremation, spirit houses cropped up around the church.. When a person died, they were laid out beneath a blanket and a layer of stones to keep them warm for the forty days the Indians believed a person's spirit lingered. A spirit house was built to shelter the corpse and keep the departed from dwelling among the living, and the family painted the house in their own traditional colors. A cross, reminiscent of the one on which Christ was crucified was erected as a final touch.
Some believe Spirit Houses were necessary because the ground was quite frequently frozen and unyielding to grave digging, but history tells us that the unique buildings were part of the Athabaskan belief. Just a point of reference, I learned...the Alaskan tribe are tied linguistically to the Navajo and Apaches.
Unlike the upkeep of burial plots here in America, Athabaskan's believe that which is taken from the earth must return to the earth, thus the houses are left to decay and rot. When touring the resting place, it's not uncommon to see new houses of those with Danaina ancestry stand among the ruins of the old. The homes...some realistically complete with flower boxes and draperies, are said to represent the level of grieving. Small houses indicate the passing of a child, and I was moved by the large amount of those at Eklutna. The number of those lost made sense when I learned a small pox epidemic wiped out a large portion of the tribe in the 1830s.
If you ever make a trip to Alaska, I urge you to visit the historical resting place in Eklutna, not far from Anchorage.