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How the Athabascans honored the spirits

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EKLUTNA, Alaska- A trip to see the spirit houses of the local Athabascan Indians is well worth the short 20-mile drive from Anchorage.

And in an example of cross-cultural pollination, seeing the above-ground funeral structures also involves a trip to see Santa Claus!

Several dozen of the spirit houses, built over graves to hold essentials for the afterlife, are on view at the Eklutna Historical Village, a low-key centuries-old mix of the Den'aina Athabascan and Russian Orthodox cultures.

More are said to be out in the woods beyond the official site, which is still a functioning burial place despite the fact that not many of the Indian families now use the Orthodox Church on the premises.

One of the key structures on the village tours, which are given by Russian Orthodox clergy, is the Old St. Nicholas Church, built about 1870 in the nearby town of Knik and moved to Eklutna about 1900 or so.

And yes, St. Nicholas, as can be seen from the Russian icon displayed in the church, is the same saint who became a prototype for the modern-day Santa Claus.

The tiny church, unused since a new church was built adjacent to the old one in 1962, is getting ramshackle. A prayer chapel built nearby in 1979, so tiny it can only hold one or two people, is even more dilapidated.

The Russian Orthodox structures exist rather incongruously with the spirit houses, which the Natives kept constructing even after their conversion to Russian Orthodoxy during the time of Russian control of Alaska (The United States bought Alaska from Russia just after the Civil War).

There are several dozen of them outside the church structures, each only a couple of feet high, painted in family colors and often decorated with fences, blankets and family-specific markings. Indian Country Today is honoring the Village's prohibition of commercial reproduction of photos of the spirit houses, although individuals are free to take pictures.

Before conversion to Orthodoxy, the Athabascans generally cremated tribal members and placed the spirit houses over them, according to the tour guide. Now they generally bury the bodies, although they continue to build spirit houses, and held a burial in the yard as recently as last November.

Some of the spirit houses have family names identified, although some do not.

The new church has about 35 congregants, although most of them now are non-Natives from the nearby town of Wasilla.

The simple tour costs a reasonable $5, and visitors are well-advised to bring mosquito repellant. They should also remember to respect gravesites and walk only on the trail through the spirit houses.