Saturday, October 29, 2016

Spirit Houses

It's kind of almost winter here.  The sky was grey, the snow from a few weeks ago is still on the ground, and I had a day off.  I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but settled on heading to a very pretty lake to get some pictures of what I hoped would be ice like glass with snow packed trails and a few birds to try to photograph.  I packed my winter boots, my extra lens, and a light fall jacket and headed north.  When I got to my destination, I reached for my camera, and realized I had my zoom lens, but the body of my camera was miles away, at home, sitting on the kitchen counter where I left it.

I figured I would at least go enjoy the pretty scene myself.  However, the ice was dull and gray, and the scene was somewhat unremarkable, other than an awful lot of yellow snow.  There is either a lot of wildlife traffic, or, well, let's hope it's wildlife traffic.  I tromped around in the snow for a bit before finally conceding that my jacket choice was also too light and it wasn't much fun to walk around when you're cold.  It looked like it was just going to be  yellow snow kind of day.

I headed back towards town and thought I would pull off the road and scout for a spot to take pictures tomorrow.  I often drive by the village of Eklutna.  I stopped there once and saw some a church with some miniature houses.  I was later told they were built for deceased elders.  So today I thought I would stop and check it out.

The tourist stop in Eklutna Village was of course closed for the season as of September 15th.  After seeing me stop and read the closed sign on the door, three gentlemen who had been standing in the parking lot asked me if I wanted to go in.  He said his mother and grandparents grew up in this village.  "Although my father was from Texas.  I guess that makes me half cowboy and half Indian.  I never know if I should shoot myself or scalp myself," he deadpanned.  I couldn't help but laugh.  He started to explain what I was seeing.  "This is the Eklutna cemetary," he told me.  He pointed to an old wooden church and told me "That building is over 200 years old.  This used to be a Russian fishing village," he told me.  "They say the village may be 400 years old."  (In fact I googled this when I got home and this little church structure built in the 1830's is thought to be the oldest standing structure in Alaska.  Eklutna has been continually occupied since at least 1650)

He asked where I was from.  When I told them "Canada," they all started to laugh and say
eh" a lot.  One gentleman was from Ruby, a stop on the Iditarod trail.  The sign said Tanaina tribe.  This means the place was originally settled by the Dena'ina people, so Athabaskan roots.  I asked about the houses, expecting to hear what I had read -- that these were Spirit Houses.  I assumed they were a type of tombstone.

Instead he told me about that the color of the house represented the family.  His family, he told me, would be all to the right and their houses would all be red and white.

The houses are almost exclusively wooden, nestled in amongst the trees.  They are personalized by the family.  Some note names, this one listed the sunrise and sunset for birthdate and death date.

"Those with fences," he told me, "are people who wanted to be buried here but are not from this village.  They are still Indian but they are not from here...but they can be buried here."

"The size of the house is the person's age.  A little house with a big house means the mom and baby died in childbirth."

This white house stands out.  It has a red tin roof, vinyl siding, a porch, and tiny glass windows.  It is the exception to the mostly wooden buildings.  In the tradition of spirit houses, the houses are not maintained or repaired but allowed to weather and crumble -- as their ancestors believed, all things must eventually return to earth. 

I did some research at home.  It seems the Athabaskan people used to cremate the remains of those who had passed, and leave the ashes in a birch box in a tree until the spirit could journey to its next place.  When Russian settlers came, they brought their Orthodox religion and burial rites with them.  From this merging of cultures, the spirit houses were born.  The Athabaskans agreed to begin burying their dead.  They would lay a blanket on the grave, which symbolized wealth and respect.  The belief was that the spirit would remain for 40 days.  And so they began building homes for the spirits so they would not haunt their own.

The gentlemen I talked to today told me they would bury their cousin and friend here next week.  They had come today to dig the grave.  "We did the grave by hand," he told me.  "That's the custom."  His friend told me they were lucky it's not so cold yet.  The task is much harder further north.

So it may be a strange place to end up on a Saturday.  But I found myself feeling appreciative for the chance to stand in the snow in such an "old place," and have a local tell me these little details about the place, the meanings, and customs.  And it seems the times are still changing.  I did find a moose monument in lieu of a spirit house.  All part of the wild and free spirit of Alaska.