† SPIRIT HOUSES OF NINILCHIK
The above picture is the only remaining spirit house. It is not a elaborate or ornate house but it stands alone as a legacy to the past. My recollection may not be completely accurate but this is the way I remember the houses.
I am about nine years old. I remember so clearly. My grandmother (Alexandria Kelly) and I are in the graveyard. The sun is shining over the inlet casting a glimmering sheen on the aqua inlet. Tiny drift boats appear like scattered seeds upon the gentle rolling waves. There are cumulus clouds delicately sweeping across the azure skies. The snow capped mountains rise mysteriously above the water across the inlet. The musical tone of Ninilchik River rippling and winding through the village is sounding in my ears. I look below and see the hustle and bustle of the village. I look around me and watch Grandma stooping in the sun pulling over grown weeds from the eternal resting-place of her parents. This is not the first time I have come to the cemetery. We come here often. Grandma finds comfort and peace in the burial ground of her ancestors. It is like the one singular offering she has for her departed relatives. Being a child, I am not interested in my great grandparent's plot. There are things far more interesting to capture my imagination. There are wonderful miniature dollhouses abounding here and there. I love to clean these long forgotten graves. I settle on a small grave. I feel a strange haunting sorrow. I know, by the dimensions of the house upon the mounded accumulation of dirt, this was someoneís infant. The building is weathered and gray. The abode is made of small boards painfully placed together. There is a dwarf platform fabricated of small boards. Around the platform is a tiny fence. Sitting on the structure is a small house. Representing windows and doors are hollow incisions carved into the dwelling. There is a small dome on top of the house. I fabricate stories of this infant and his parents. I know little of mortality so I am plagued with images of the death of this small child. I have won my battle with the unwelcome plants and I go on to another dwelling. This one is newer, larger and painted white. It must belong to a man. There are no gravestones to tell a story. The east side of this plot has an Orthodox cross standing tall and regal. I love the cross. It has three bars. I have heard many stories of these bars. My favorite is one that reminds me that the man on one side of the cross, confessed his sins so the bar is pointed to Heaven. The other man did not confess his sins so the bar points to the Underworld. With the faith of a child I marvel at this legend. I donít get to attend church on this hill very often (rarely does a priest visit) so the mystery of it fascinates me. I pull weeds and think of what my grandmother has told me about these houses. She says people used to place things in the houses after someone dies. Only a few houses have things in them now. This one has some remnants of faded cloth and one tattered shoe. Grandma says there used to be lots of things in these houses but people like to steal things. I feel sad about the pilfering. I start tugging at the vigorous weeds and study the abode. It has a wooden base. It reminds me of a wedding cake. There are several tiers. Each tier is a floor of the house set on another smaller platform with the first tier being larger than the second. The first and second layers have diminutive fences surrounding them. The last tier is like the bell tower on the church and it is not set on platform. It is directly on the building. The enclosure is carved in extreme detail with dome shaped pillars on the end posts. It looks like a reproduction from pictures of churches I have seen in magazines.
I feel melancholy as I look around and ponder why nobody cares about these graves. Even my grandmother ignores them. She smiles at me as I clean them but says nothing. I see many with broken platforms and caved in roofs. There is barely a trace of the weather beaten white paint. I wish I could save them all. I stop to clean another. It is medium sized. Is this somebodyís Mama? It doesnít have a platform or a fence. It is just a small white house with an opening for a door and windows. On the top is a cross. Inside is a few rusty items scattered about in a haphazard manner. I am afraid to disturb the contents. I kneel by another this one has an interesting fence. Each picket has a small round top. I look at another whose pickets all have a flat dome shape on them. Another dollhouse has three domes on its top and each dome has a tiny cross. Most of the houses are no more than two feet on the platform and many are smaller. A few are larger. Most tiers are no higher that six to eight inches. Many have Byzantine style crosses although I do not know they are called that. Over the course of the summer I will get to clean many of these graves. I feel a sense of accomplishment as only a young child can.
I am grown now and the houses are gone. All that remains is part of one weather beaten structure on the grave of my husbandís Uncle. Who removed the houses? Why were they there in the first place? People who were living in two worlds must have built them. I know they could not be Aleut because as far as any one knows the Aleuts did not have Spirit Houses. They were unlike the Athabascan houses in Eklutna, which are large and colorful. These were a smaller work of art built in a wedding cake style resembling Russian Churches. I think it is possible that the Athabascan people who believed in a Spirit hovering about after death readily accepted the Orthodox faith, which also makes reference to your spirit for forty days after death. There is a distinct possibility these houses were built by people with a mixed cultural background representing two cultural beliefs. I am forever asking where have they gone and who remembers? The houses seemed to have disappeared in the late 1950ís or the early 1960ís. I often wish I could show those dollhouses to my grandchildren. I feel emotionally disheartened by a part of History missing from Ninilchik and hope this story will preserve the lost culture.
If you remember the Spirit Houses of Ninilchik please send a letter to:
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Since writing this document I spoke to many people near my age who remember these houses. Two brothers used to sneak out at night to fly kites in the graveyard and their memory is still alive on this subject. Another family played on the hill and vaguely remember the houses. A few elders speak shyly of them. Some Kenai residents remember similar houses in Kenai and aptly describe them as resembling wedding cakes. A tape has been found of a deceased elder describing them as wonderful dollhouses. If any reader has a picture or other documentation I would appreciate the added information.