Today, technology helps a Siberian priest to
understand a new people. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The Russian Orthodox priest,
Ivan Veniaminov, came out of Siberia in 1823.
Veniaminov was born near Irkutsk, north of
Mongolia. During his years in the Irkutsk seminary
he also studied mechanics. He was not just a
priest. He was also a skilled clock and instrument
Then Veniaminov heard that missionaries were needed
among the Aleut natives on the south Alaska coast.
So this intellectual, whose hands had learned right
along with his head, set off for Unalaska. That's
one of the Aleutian Islands.
First he went to Sitka, the old Russian capital in
North America. He spent a year there learning the
Aleut language and the lay of the land. Then he
shipped to Unalaska.
He stayed ten years in that cold, remote place. He
taught the Aleuts carpentry, brick-making, and
stone masonry. Together, they built a church and a
school. He created the first written Aleut
language. He translated the Gospel and a catechism
into Aleut. He kept the first Alaskan weather
For ten years this six foot, three inch powerhouse
traveled local islands in an Aleut kayak. Those
boats of skin, driftwood, and whalebone were
erratic and buoyant -- fast and unstable. He wrote,
Nature failed to [give the Aleuts] the material
necessary for boats, that is wood, but ... in
compensation, she gave them greater ingenuity for
the perfection of a special new kind of [boat.]
Veniaminov's success traced right back
to his respect for the Aleuts. He called them devout,
intelligent, and industrious. And so they were!
They'd already honed a complex survival technology on
the very edge of the world. They'd also taken up the
Russian game of chess, and they were beating the
Russians at it.
Veniaminov went back to Sitka in 1834. There he
wrote the definitive ethnographic study of the
Aleut people. He also built a remarkable cathedral.
He designed and built a great clock for its tower.
A visiting English sea captain wrote,
The padre [was a] powerful athletic man, about
45 . . . quite herculean, and very clever. I took a
great liking to him. [I visited] his workshop,
where I saw a good barrel organ, a barometer, and
several items of his own manufacture.
Later, Veniaminov repaired two
barometers for the captain.
For 27 years Veniaminov ranged up and down the
coast, doing everything. He survived starvation and
shipwreck. He sailed as far south as the Russian
settlement in California.
All the while, his huge capability fed his vision.
He had the means for seeing how the work of a
people's hands makes them what they are. He could
see the Aleut people -- whole.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Veniaminov, I., Notes on the Islands of the
Unalashka District. (L.T. Black and R.H.
Geoghegan, tr.; R.A. Pierce, ed.) Kingston, Ont.:
The Limestone Press, 1984. (This includes a nice
Shenitz, H.A., Father Veniaminov, the Enlightener
of Alaska. The American Slavic and East
European Review, Vol. XVIII, 1959, pp.
Dyson, G., Baidarka: The Kayak, Anchorage:
Alaska Northwest Books. 1986. (This includes
several references to Veniaminov. See the Index.)
See also Episode No. 669
for more about the baidarka.
I'm grateful to Walter van Horn, Curator of
Collections, and Diane Brenner, Archivist -- both
at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art -- for
their kind help. Walter van Horn suggested
Veniaminov as the subject of an episode.
From the November, 1896,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the July 1896 Century
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