Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters with Russian Orthodox Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820-1917

Article excerpt

Andrei A. Znamenski. Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters with Russian Orthodox Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820-1917. Contributions to the Study of World History, No. 70. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 1999. xii, 306 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $65.00, cloth.

Andrei A. Znamenski offers us a volume on an enticing subject: the encounter of Siberian and Alaskan natives with the missions of the Russian Orthodox Church and, of course, the Russian empire. The author deliberately intends, in his analysis, to cross the borders of disciplines. He points to his study integrating approaches from ethno-history, cultural studies and religious studies. He also clearly limits his task to "three historical snapshots of missionary-native relations as seen by a world historian" (p. 1). His three focus groups are the Dena'ina, the Chukchi, and the Altai peoples at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Znamenski's work is certainly worthy of attention, although one must recognize the inevitability of such a pioneering study's limited depth.

Znamenski addresses a vital question and answers it unequivocally: the meeting of Orthodox and native perspectives was not based on a standard script, nor can the three experiences be generalized into a common story. Znamenski affirms, for example, the creative adjustments of Orthodox beliefs which the Denaiina made in their embrace of the Russian religion (p. 96), whereas the Chukchi and local populace of mixed race more often incorporated chosen aspects of Orthodoxy into their shamanistic belief system and practices (p. 175f.). In fact, Znamenski records evidence of the local Russian populace readily adopting local Chukchi beliefs and practices. The Attains, the author suggests, were even more ambivalent in their attitudes towards Russian Orthodoxy.

The study elucidates the multileveled approach of the Orthodox to these mission territories. It is misleading to suggest that any of the mission activities was simply about conversion to an Orthodox set of beliefs. Missionaries often regarded the poor response that their efforts met as evidence of the natives' "low material and mental development" (p. 74). They argued that spiritual success would have to be preceded by material assistance for the native population. As early as 1856, for example, the Holy Synod decreed that missionaries administer the smallpox vaccine to their flocks (p. …