Golubets, gravehouse, and gate: Old Russian traditions and the wooden mortuary architecture in Russia, Siberia, and the North Pacific




Currier, Janice Arlee

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The cemetery in the Tanaina (Dena'ina) village of Eklutna, Alaska, features brightly coloured miniature houses constructed of wood to mark graves, rather than using simple crosses or stones. These gravehouses give the cemetery the appearance of a village for the dead. Most of the structures have a Russian Orthodox cross at one end, and this has led most who see the cemetery to conclude that the combination represents a synthesis of Athabascan traditions, in the form of the gravehouse, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, as represented by the cross. As this study will demonstrate, there are various problems with this proposal in that gravehouses are found among groups which are neither Orthodox nor Athabascan, yet have features of construction and ornament in common. Furthermore, research reveals that gravehouses were not part of the funerary traditions of the First Nations and Native Americans where such structures are found today, but have been used for centuries in European Russia. Although gravehouses were forbidden there at various times, social and religious dissidents, such as some accords of Old Believers, continued to use them and may have introduced this form of folk architecture to some groups of aboriginal Siberian peoples who, with Russians, may have encouraged the use of the gravehouse, or golubets, in the Northern Pacific regions of North America. The ornament and symbolism of the gravehouses in the Northern Pacific share similarities with those on the other side of the Bering Strait, supporting the notion of a common origin. This study seeks additional supporting evidence, supported by some documents and oral traditions, that Old Believers and other Russian Sectarians may have been among the Russians who explored and settled in the Northern Pacific region during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This possibility provides a deeper understanding of the origin and meaning of gravehouses in the North Pacific, and presents new interpretations of the probable significance and contributions of aboriginal Siberians and Russian dissidents in the history of Russian America.



Alaska, cemetaries, gravehouses, British Columbia, Russia, Siberia