August 01, 2013

Saint Peter the Aleut

Last year the Catholic Church canonized Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint. She was born in a Mohawk village in what is now upstate New York. As an adult, she did a few years of religious work in what is now Canada's Mohawk territory. And she died there.

Both American and Canadian Catholics have claimed her, and sources have called her the first Native American or American Indian saint. This may be true if you limit these terms to the USA and Canada.

As I noted long ago, Juan Diego, the Mexican Indian who first saw the Virgin of Guadalupe, preceded Kateri Tekakwitha. The Catholic Church canonized him in 2002, so I thought he was the indigenous saint.

But I didn't realize other Christian churches also have saints. A blog informed me of another candidate for first indigenous saint:

The Russian River and Saint Peter the AleutPeter was a Kodiak Islander who was murdered in the area two hundred years ago and canonized in the Russian Orthodox church by St. Herman back in the nineteenth century. With his veneration occurring around 1865 he was the first Native American saint. As of 1980 he became the patron of San Francisco, strangely enough. In his History of California Hubert Howe Bancroft argues that St. Peter was more or less a myth. Other scholars such as Raymond A. Bucko have asserted that there is a case for believing St. Peter existed and the story of his death is quite plausible. A brief summary entails the Californios capturing a party of Alutiiq hunters. As a captive, Peter refused to renounce his faith in the church, a resistance for which he lost his life. An account written by Simeon Janovsky attests to Father Herman, upon hearing about the death, apparently "stood up before an Ikon reverently, made the sign of the Cross and pronounced, 'holy newly-martyred Peter, pray for us!"Wikipedia tells us more:

Peter the AleutCungagnaq (date of birth unknown - d. 1815) is venerated as a martyr and saint (as Peter the Aleut) by some jurisdictions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was allegedly a native of Kodiak Island (Alutiiq or Sugpiaq), and is said to have received the Christian name of Peter when he was baptized into the Orthodox faith by the monks of St. Herman's missionaries operating in the north. He is purported to have been captured by Spanish soldiers near San Pedro (Pacifica, California) and tortured and killed at the instigation of Roman Catholic priests either there or at Mission Dolores, in San Francisco.


According to the most fully developed version of the story, in 1815 a group of Russian employees of the Russian American Company and their Aleut seal and otter hunters, including Peter, was captured by Spanish soldiers, while hunting illicitly for seals near San Pedro. According to the original account, the soldiers took them to Misión San Pedro y Pablo for interrogation. One Russian source states that after being taken prisoner near modern Los Angeles, the captives were taken to Mission Dolores—that is, modern San Francisco. With threats of torture, the Roman Catholic priests attempted to force the Aleuts to deny their Orthodox faith and to convert to Roman Catholicism.

When the Aleuts refused, the priest had a toe severed from each of Peter's feet. Peter still refused to renounce his faith and the Spanish priest ordered a group of Native Americans, indigenous to California, to cut off each finger of Peter's hands, one joint at a time, finally removing both his hands. They eventually disemboweled him, making him a martyr to the Eastern Orthodox faith. They were about to torture the next Aleut when orders were received to release them.


According to Yanovsky's 1865 letter, upon receiving the report of Peter's death, St. Herman back on Kodiak Island was moved to cry out, "Holy new-martyr Peter, pray to God for us!"

Peter the Aleut was glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and locally glorified by the Diocese of Alaska of the Orthodox Church in America as the "Martyr of San Francisco" in 1980.
Comment:  Those crazy Catholics...always torturing and killing Indians in the name of God!

Wow, that's the most gruesome case of Christian torture I can remember. It's arguably worse than simply burning someone at the stake.

Note that a Russian ship with Aleut sailors were involved in the Island of the Blue Dolphins story about 35 years later. Strange to think of these people playing a part in California history.

Anyway, I gather the 1980 "glorifications" made Peter a saint. So he preceded Juan Diego by 22 years.

He wasn't an Indian, since "Aleut" falls into the Alaska Native category. And he wasn't a Catholic saint. But he counts as the first indigenous saint of the Americas--that I know of, anyway.

For more on Native saints, see Kateri = Symbol of Colonization and Pope Canonizes Kateri Tekakwitha.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I generally assume there's some sadomasochism going on in Christianity. We find out that a lot of the martyrdom at the hands of the Romans (who were generally more concerned that you joined the military to help them expand the empire than which gods you worshipped) was made up after the fact.

And there was a local saint in France who was supposedly murdered by a Jewish gang for being Christian, which led to the king at the time leading a campaign against the Jews.

The king incidentally owed a couple Jews a lot of money. He staged what we now call a "false flag" operation to have an excuse to kill his creditors.