Eklutna Historical Park, Alaska

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On a wonderful 27-day escorted motor-coach tour of Alaska and the Yukon, that we took with Gadabout Tours, one of our most unique visitations was at the historical Eklutna Historical Park.

Eklutna is a small native community within the Municipality of Anchorage, in the United States state of Alaska. Alongside the Cook Inlet, about 30 minutes from Downtown Anchorage, my husband Lloyd and I found that Eklutna, dating back to 1650, is the oldest inhabited Athabascan Indian community in the Anchorage area, and that it has approximately 800 years of human history.

LITTLE HOUSES: Some of the Spirit houses, built over the graves. | Photo by Arlene Lehtone

This Indian village of Eklutna was inhabited by the Tanaina Tribe of the Athabascan people who occupy this area. Just about all residents of the Eklutna Village are either Alaska Native or part Native, most of them being members of the federally recognized Native Village of Eklutna.

The first non-Native settlers arrived here around the 1840s and were Russian Orthodox missionariesTheir influence is still evident at this Eklutna Historical Park Cemetery.  When the Russians appeared, they supposedly criticized the natives for burying their dead above the ground, and beneath rock clams.

When Alaska was sold to the United States, many Russians went back to Russia. However, their influence remained, and Russian Orthodox now is the biggest Christian faith in Alaska.  A blending of Russian Orthodox Christianity and native Athabascan traditions developed, bringing about these colorful graves, with more than eighty native spirit houses, being positioned over traditional graves. We viewed the sacred burial ground of the Dena’ina Indians, also called Tanaina. Following custom, these highly decorated spirit houses provide shelter for the spirits of the departed. 

Eklutna Colorful spirit houses some with crosses

This cemetery is the most photographed graveyard in Alaska and outweighs any other features of the village. The cemetery at Eklutna, founded around 1650, is famous for its small and decorative spirit houses, which are miniature houses built atop the graves. They are made in a diversity of styles and colors, with unusual styles and colors distinctive to certain families and family members.  The blending of colors is from a marriage between two families, and every family has its own color scheme and style.

Some graves also are marked with an Orthodox Christian cross, which honor the resting places of the Orthodox non-native members of the church. The graves originally contained guns, cups, and other items that the deceased might need in the afterlife. 

SMALL CHAPEL: The historic Old Log Russian Orhodox Church. | Photo by Arlene Lehtone

The Dena’ina Athabascan village of Eklutna is the last of eight villages that existed before the Alaska Railroad was built, which brought an arrival of American colonists around 1915. An Alaska Railroad siding and station house were constructed near the village Eklutna in 1918. The federal government managed a boarding school for native children near the village prior to World War II, and the U.S. Army established a facility close-by in the mid-20th century, which now is gone.

We saw two Russian Orthodox churches at Eklutna, the historic Old Log Russian Orthodox Church and the new Orthodox Church. The charming little old log church is kept up for historical purposes, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and states, “Most Holy Theotokos Save Us.” The lovely church originally was built in Knik around 1870, and relocated to Eklutna around 1900, where it was used until replaced by the new church.

Lloyd and I also saw the new St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which was built in 1962 by the people of Eklutna, and still is a fully functioning church. An adjacent sign described the history of the restoration of the church to us.

A CHURCH WITH HISTORY: The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox
Church built in 1962. | Photo by Arlene Lehtone

A distinguishing feature of Russian Orthodox churches is the onion-shaped domes on top of the cupolas. Many historians do not agree about the origin of this individualistic design, but some of the historians mention the influence of Persia on this aspect of Russian church architecture.

The interior of Alaska is home to the Athabaskan Native Peoples, and the Heritage House Museum provides tours and information about the merging of the Athabascan and missionary cultures. Just about all the Eklutna Village are Alaska Native or part Native, the majority being members of the federally recognized Native Village of Eklutna. For employment, most Tribal Members commute to work in Anchorage, Eagle River, or the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. 

Eklutna first was seen on the 1930 United States Census, listed as an unincorporated village, with 158 residents. It continued to report on the census until 1970 and was annexed into Anchorage in 1975. 

ARLENE LEHTONE: Photo courtesy of by Arlene Lehtone

While Lloyd and I were visiting Eklutna Historical Park, we came upon an arts and crafts fair at the entrance, where we learned that Qiviut is combed from the undercoat of the musk ox. This fiber is rarer than cashmere, is eight times warmer than wool, is light as a summer breeze, and is used for sweaters and scarves.

From enchanting Eklutna, we drove to Anchorage, 24 miles distant, and continued our terrific 27-day guided sightseeing tour of Alaska and the Yukon.

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