We stopped by Eklutna on a cool, rainy day at the end of April. In most parts of the U.S., spring had long since arrived, but here, 30 minutes north of Anchorage, the trees were still bare, and patches of snow lay on the ground.
It was fitting, then, to visit Eklutna Historical Park, with its church, graveyard and Spirit Houses, on such a day. If the sun had been shining, we might have dismissed this place, a cemetery and a minor tourist attraction, as some bit of offbeat Alaskan quirkiness, a place where two cultures merged to create a unique ritual. But hunched in my jacket against the cold, I felt only melancholy and reverence as I walked amongst the graves.
The Athabaskan people have inhabited interior Alaska for almost a thousand years, and the village of Eklutna has been continuously inhabited by Dena’ina (or Tanaina) Athabaskans since the 1600’s. Russian Orthodox missionaries began arriving around 1830, and as the Natives converted to Christianity, they adopted many Christian conventions, including the methods they used to care for the deceased.
Traditionally, Athabaskans cremated their dead, but the missionaries forbade this practice. In Russian Orthodoxy, the deceased must be buried, and the soul spends 40 days in transition between death and the afterlife. The Natives acquiesced to the church’s customs and began to bury their dead, but they added a unique element—the Spirit Houses. They wanted the souls of their loved ones to find comfort during the journey from this realm to the next, so they placed a blanket over the gravesite to provide warmth and a Spirit House atop the blanket to offer shelter. The houses were hand-made and painted in family colors.
This practice continues to present day, and we saw houses in all states and conditions, ranging from pristine and colorful to almost indistinguishable from the ground below.
The houses are not maintained; instead they are allowed to decay and return to the earth, conforming to Athabaskan custom.
In addition to the Spirit Houses, many gravesites display an Orthodox Three-Barred Cross:
While many gravesites contain features of both Athabaskan and Christian customs, not all do. This is a community cemetery, and both Athabaskans and non-Athabaskans bury their loved ones here, hence the absence of Spirit Houses on some graves and crosses on others.
A few gravesites had unique Alaskan touches:
The grounds of Eklutna Historical Park also contain two churches. Old Saint Nicholas Church was built in the town of Knik in the 1800’s and then moved to Eklutna in ~1900. It is the oldest standing building in the greater Anchorage area and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was replaced in 1962 by the New Saint Nicholas Church, which is still active.
We only spent a few minutes in Eklutna, but it was enough time to appreciate the bright colors of the newer houses and the decayed ruins of the older ones, as well as the fascinating merger between two seemingly disparate cultures.
Visiting Eklutna and the Spirit Houses
Eklutna is a small village about 30 minutes north of Anchorage. Eklutna Historical Park, the main attraction of the village, is open Monday-Friday from May 15-September 15, and a visitors center offers guided tours. We were there in the off-season, but the gate was open, and I’m guessing the grounds are never completely closed because the cemetery is still in use.
Admission is $5/person, but since no one was present to take it, we put ours in an onsite donation box.
Directions: From Anchorage, head north on the Glenn Highway. Take the Eklutna exit and then go left over the overpass. You will quickly come to the village of Eklutna, and the church and cemetery are on the left.