The Russian Creoles of Alaska as a Marginal Group

The Russian Creoles of Alaska as a Marginal Group

Social Forces
Volume 22, Number 2 (December 1943)
pages 204-208

Margaret Mary Wood
Russell Sage College

The interest in Alaska which has been aroused by its strategic importance in the present world-war conflict is bringing to the fore as worthy of attention many problems of this distant American frontier to which little heed has hitherto been given. Among these problems the marginal position of the Russian Creoles in Alaska is one which is of special sociological interest. The position of this group is not only characterized by the difficulties which are commonly associated with the marginal position of racial hybrids, but it is also further complicated by a number of cultural difficulties which arc in many respects unique. These latter difficulties must be seen in the light of the history of the group to be rightly understood.

The present Russian Creoles in Alaska are the descendants of mixed marriages between the Russians and the Alaskan natives which occurred during the period of Russian rule in Alaska. The term “creole” was legally defined by the Russian authorities to mean the children of Russian fathers and the native women, and it was used in this sense in the Russian colonies. In the southern United States and in the West Indies, however, the term is used differently and only includes children of Spanish or French descent born in America of European parents. Historians in writing about Alaska have, for the most part, adopted the Russian use of the term; but it has not found a ready acceptance with the American settlers in Alaska who tend to designate the Creoles as “natives” or “half-breeds.” Both of these terms are keenly resented by the Creole group as I learned to my regret when I was teaching at Kodiak in 1916. I inadvertently referred to the Creoles as natives in making a distinction between some of their customs and those of the American group in Kodiak.   My tactless remark was repeated in garbled form to the local school board, all of whom were Creoles, and stirred up a furore which cost me my position for the following year, deservedly enough perhaps. The question of their name is one concerning which the Creole group are exceedingly sensitive.

Precise statistics of the Creoles in Alaska are lacking, but their number is not large. Russian records for Alaska in 1860 give the number of Creoles who had been baptized into the Russian Church as 1,676. In the United States census report of 1880, Ivan Petroff, who enumerated the Alaskan population for the government, gives their number as 1,756. In more recent census reports the Russian Creoles are not distinguished from other natives of mixed blood in Alaska. The 1930 census gives 7,825 as the number of natives of mixed blood out of a total native population of 29,983, but does not list the Russian Creoles separately. They probably do not constitute more than a third to a half of the natives of mixed blood, however, for racial diffusion is occurring rapidly in Alaska. This diffusion is to be expected. It is the natural outcome of a situation in which a pioneer breed of white men, isolated from women of their own race, are in contact with a docile and not unattractive native people.   The Russians recognized this situation in Alaska with greater frankness and tolerance than it has since been accorded under American rule.

Under the jurisdiction of the Russian American Company, which was chartered in 1799, order was introduced into the Russian colony and the earlier…

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