Reading #8

Theme 1: Ethnic Identity

Period: Russian (1741-1867)

The Life of Father Yakov Netsvetov

Yakov Netsvetov, later glorified as St. Yakov, was in some ways typical of St. George Islanders during the Russian Period, but in others an exceptional man. This biographical sketch is based on information from Richard Pierce’s Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary (1990:380-3).

Yakov Egorovich Netsvetov was born in 1804 on St. George Island, the first son of the Russian Egor Vasil’evich Netsvetov and his wife Mariia, an Unanga originally from the island of Atka in the central Aleutians. As the child of a Russian and a Native, Yakov belonged to a special class of Alaskans called "Creoles." Creoles were guaranteed an education as long as they agreed to work for the trading company afterward. They were Russian citizens but did not have to pay Russian taxes. In the last years of Russia’s occupation in Alaska, the hundreds of Creoles who had been born in the colony were the backbone of the company’s workforce. Many St. George Islanders were Creoles, and, like Yakov Netsvetov, were bilingual, able to speak Unangan and Russian equally well. Many were also literate, having learned to read and write from their parents at home.

At the time of Yakov’s birth, his father worked for the Russian-American Company, which operated all fur trading in Alaska between 1799 and 1867, and which acted as the colonial government as well. In 1818, Yakov’s father was promoted to the status of baidarshchik (head of the sealing operations) of St. George. Yakov spent his childhood on the island, learning to read and write from his father, and to hunt, fish, and harvest fur seals from relatives and friends. He went to work for the Russian-American Company when he was 19 years old, but the next year traveled with his family to the Russian Orthodox seminary in Irkutsk to begin studying for the priesthood. In 1828, Yakov was consecrated priest and assigned to his first parish. He was stationed on the island of Atka, his mother’s home, to become the first Christian priest in the western and central Aleutians. Father Yakov moved there with his wife, Anna, a Russian whom he had met while studying in Russia, and with his father and sister. While in Atka, Father Yakov operated a school for Native and Creole children, translated the Bible into the Atka dialect of the Unangam language, compiled a dictionary in Atkan Aleut, gardened and taught others to garden, hunted, traveled throughout the region to serve the faithful, and gathered plant and animal specimens for museums in Russia.

When Father Yakov’s wife and father died within a year of each other, he requested that the church transfer him out of Atka. In 1844 he was asked to establish a new Orthodox mission on the Yukon River, in Athabascan Indian territory. The governor of Alaska needed a man who was comfortable living off the land, and who was self-reliant enough to plan and carry out the missionary work without outside help. Father Yakov seemed perfectly suited for the job. He lived for many years in what is now called "Russian Mission," traveled throughout the region, learned the languages of his new parishioners, and translated the Bible and prayer books into those languages. In 1863 he retired to the capital at Sitka. The next summer Yakov Netsvetov died. Throughout his life, like other Alaskan Creoles and like most of his fellow St. George Islanders, he had used skills and information from both his Russian and his Aleut heritage.

In 1995, Father Yakov was glorified as Saint Yakov.

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