Dena’ina and Russian Orthodox Eklutna Spirit Houses
Story by Anne Sanders | Photography by Cecil Sanders
The Alaska Native village of Eklutna is home to one of the most interesting cemeteries in Alaska. Within Eklutna’s Russian Orthodox cemetery are spirit houses, which reflect the blending of beliefs between the Dena’ina, a Native Alaskan Athabascan people, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Eklutna is located approximately 30 miles north of Anchorage. The Dena’ina people have been in the Cook Inlet area of Southcentral Alaska for almost 1000 years, and it is said the village is the oldest continuously inhabited Dena’ina settlement as well as the oldest inhabited place of any kind in the municipality of Anchorage.
Before Russian Orthodox missionaries settled in the area it was customary for the Dena’ina people to cremate the deceased. Their ashes would be collected and put into baskets that would be placed in a tree or by a river in order to allow their spirit to journey to what the Dena’ina refer to as, “the High Country.”
After the Dena’ina began converting to Russian Orthodox in the early 1800s they were forbidden by the church to perform cremations. In following with Russian Orthodox customs, the deceased were buried. According to the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church there is a 40 day period when the spirit of the dead make their journey from the grave. According to a St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Texas, “Some souls find themselves (after the forty days) in a condition of foretasting eternal joy and blessedness, and others in fear of the eternal torments which will come in full after the Last Judgment.”
In order to provide shelter for the traveling spirits, the Dena’ina people build spirit houses to cover the graves. Before the spirit houses are placed over the grave the mound is covered with a blanket which it is believed by the Dena’ina people to provide warmth and comfort to the soul of the dead. The spirit houses are brightly colored, and it is said their colors are a blend of the deceased’s family colors. Most of the spirit houses also include the traditional three-barred Russian Orthodox cross.
To see these spirit houses for yourself, go the the Eklutna Historical Park which includes the graveyard as well as the old and new St. Nicholas Churches. If driving north on the Glenn Highway from Anchorage, take the Eklutna exit and then take a left. After crossing the overpass drive straight until you reach the Eklutna Historical Park which will be on your left.
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