Old Harbor is a small Alutiiq community situated on the western shore of Sitkalidak Strait that separates Sitkalidak Island from Kodiak Island, about 48 miles (77 km) southwest of Kodiak and 40 miles (64 km) northeast of Akhiok, Alaska. The Alutiiq name for the village is Nuniaq. The Alutiiq people have inhabited the Southcentral Alaska coast for over 7,500 years. Their traditional homelands include Prince William Sound, the outer Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula. The community of Old Harbor has its origins in the Russian colonial period. In 1783–1786, Grigory Shelikhov led an expedition to Alaska and founded the first permanent Russian settlements in North America. In April 1784, Shelikhov arrived at Kodiak Island with two ships, the Three Saints and Saint Simon, and founded the settlement of Three Saints Bay. The indigenous Alutiiq Koniag defended themselves from the Russian party, but Shelikhov and 130 men with guns and cannons, killed hundreds of the Alutiiq at Refuge Rock during the Awa’uq Massacre. They also took hundreds of women and children hostage to indenture the remainder into forced labor at dozens of artels. Shelikhov’s voyage was done under the auspices of his Shelikhov-Golikov Company, the other owner of which was Ivan Larionovich Golikov. This company was the predecessor of the Russian-American Company. Three Saints Bay was intended to be a permanent settlement, but the site was poorly chosen because the hillside above the shore area was too steep to build on, and the shore area was too small for a substantial settlement. In 1788, a tsunami destroyed the settlement and it was replaced by a new artel further up the bay. In 1791, a new settlement was established at Saint Paul Harbor, which is the site of present-day Kodiak. The Three Saints Bay settlement became known as Staruigavan or “old harbor” and continued to be occupied as a station of lesser importance until roughly the mid-19th century, at which time it was relocated to the site of the present-day community of Old Harbor.
Russian colonization had a profound influence on the native cultures of Alaska. Shelikhov founded a school for the Alutiiq and many were converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity. The Shelikhov-Golikov Company appealed to the Russian Orthodox Church to provide a priest for the natives. Catherine the Great decided instead to send an entire mission to America. Ten monks including Egor Ivanovich Popov, better known as Herman, arrived at Three Saints Bay on September 24, 1794, where the missionaries encountered the harsh reality of artel life and Alutiiq servitude. The monks became the defenders of the native Kodiak population, baptized over 7,000 Alutiiq, and built a church and monastery at Saint Paul Harbor. After more than a decade spent in Alaska, Herman became the head of the mission in 1807, where he taught singing and catechism alongside reading and writing. He retired from active duty in 1811 and moved to Spruce Island, living as a hermit until his death in 1836. Another notable priest was Ivan Evseyevich Popov Veniaminov, known as Father Ioann, who arrived at Unalaska on July 29, 1824, where he lived in a barabara with his family. His parish included the neighboring island groups occupied by indigenous people who had been converted to Christianity before his arrival. Father Ioann often traveled between the islands in a baidarka, battling the stormy weather in the Gulf of Alaska. Over time, he became familiar with the local dialects and devised an alphabet using Cyrillic letters and used this to translate portions of the Bible and other church material. In 1840, he was given the name Innocent in honor of Saint Innocent and elevated to the rank of Archimandrite. On December 15, 1840, Archimandrite Innocent was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and Kuril Islands in Russia and the Aleutian Islands in Russian America. His see was located at New Archangel, which is present-day Sitka, and was based in the Cathedral of Saint Michael.
In 1925, the first American school was established in Old Harbor, previous to that a system of church elders provided education for young people wanting to learn to read and write in both Slavonic and Alutiiq. The Russian Orthodox Church at Old Harbor was built in 1953 by locals according to traditional Alaskan Russian Orthodox church architecture. The church was named for the Three Saints: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Originally, only low-pitched gable roofs covered the sanctuary, nave, and narthex, and the three onion domes with Orthodox crosses were added later. In 1964, the Good Friday earthquake and resulting tsunami destroyed the community, only two homes and the Russian Orthodox Church remained standing. The community was rebuilt in the same location. In 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and in 1973 the Old Harbor Native Corporation was formed. Today, many Old Harbor residents still live a traditional subsistence lifestyle, catching salmon to preserve by smoking, drying and pickling, harvesting berries, gathering bird eggs, kelp, shellfish, sea urchins and octopus, and hunting for ducks, ptarmigan, goats, deer, seals, and sea lions. See a short video on the earthquake at Old Harbor here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Old Harbor here: