AK: Knowing the unknown

Since Russian priests began establishing missions at the end of the 18th century, the Orthodox Church has become part of the landscape of Alaska.

What’s less visible today than Orthodox crosses and golden cupolas are the Alaska Native belief systems that existed before European contact. KDLG’s Hannah Colton has this story about one Dena’ina man who came to embrace his traditional spirituality, and why he’s choosing now to speak up about it.  

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Lary Hill (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG - Dillingham)
Lary Hill (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG – Dillingham)

Lary Hill hesitates to call himself a “shaman.” But he’s open about the fact that he inexplicably knows things that seem unknowable.  

We’ll get back to that. For now, Hill is on the shore of Lake Clark speaking to a dozen kids from Nondalton. He pulls a flat, polished rock from his pocket.

Today, what I’d like you to do is find yourself a couple of stones,” Hill said. “Here’s an example…”

We’re at a Dena’ina culture camp – Hill is one of a handful of elders here to share their knowledge with the youth. This afternoon’s lesson is on “worry stones.”

Some of you may have heard that word before, there’s a Dena’ina word for it and I don’t know what it is. I learned it from my grandmother,” Hill explained.

The idea, Hill explains, is that you can “program” the stone with happy, positive thoughts, and then it can help when you’re stressed or sad. It’s based on the Dena’ina belief that everything in nature has some kind of energy.

Now it’s your choice whether you want to believe what I’m saying or not, that’s up to you,” Hill said. “Some people look upon this as superstition, but to me it’s very real.”

The kids fan out across the beach to pick their own stones.

Now, this idea – that all things are connected through their energies – Hill learned it from his grandmother as a young boy in the village of Nondalton. Back then, he says, he didn’t really understand any of the spiritual stuff. But already, he had a unique ability to know and see things that other people couldn’t.

When you’re five years old and you can touch a person’s hand and see what they did for the last three days, and you tell them about it… man, that’s scary to them,” Hill said.

It was not scary to Hill’s immediate family. Their family lore counts shamans and seers going back generations – on both his mother’s Dena’ina side and his father’s side in Finland.  

Lary Hill lifts his rifle after shooting a celebratory three shots into the air, a Lake Clark area tradition when welcoming relatives and friends to a potluck. (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG - Dillingham)
Lary Hill lifts his rifle after shooting a celebratory three shots into the air, a Lake Clark area tradition when welcoming relatives and friends to a potluck. (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG – Dillingham)

But other people, they were freaked out.   

“And in the village I got picked on and beat up,” Hill said.

So, like many kids who don’t fit in, Hill learned to hide who he was. He grew up shy, and by the time he was 20 was spending a lot of time by himself, up in the hills.

Then he was drafted into the army. Overseas in Korea, he was pushed into leadership roles, and gained confidence in himself.

He also experienced things in the army that he doesn’t like to talk about now. After he got out, he says, he started drinking, both to cope with bad memories and to drown out the voices in his head.

When he eventually sobered up, the voices were still there. So, he stopped fighting it them.

About 20 years ago, there was a death in an unnamed village, and that night I received a message from that person,” Hill said. “And I could not rest until I delivered that message. I didn’t know what the message was going to be until I saw that person, and they asked me one question. And I had the answer.”

In that case, and many others, Hill says his message brought comfort to the bereaved. But occasionally, he was met with disbelief or anger. He’s even been physically assaulted.  

And he’s faced pushback from the Russian Orthodox community. Hill considers himself a believer; he was baptized in the Church. But some of the local ministers, he says, do not like him bringing people these messages.

They’ve told me that I’m promoting evil and contact with the devil,” Hill said. “But I always ask, when I get this compulsion, if it comes from God.”

HC: “How does that make you feel when there’s a preist saying ‘this is coming from the devil’ or something?”

“If I don’t feel that it is, I’ll just say, no, I know where it comes from, I’m sorry you don’t believe me, but I feel compelled to do this, and the message is right,” Hill said. “Some of these priests were family friends and they haven’t spoken to me since, on one occasion. But again, I accept that. I know that that’s part of it.”

Hill has accepted the messiness that comes with living out his beliefs … but these kids at camp, they’re just starting out. It’s a lot to swallow.

“The worry rock? Yeah, I kinda believe in it.,” Nolan Schaeffer said. Schaeffer is Hill’s grandson. He’s sixteen, smart, and serious, and he’s spoken with his grandpa about the spiritual connection that seems to run in the family.

“If that happened to me I’d feel really weirded out, but I’d love it, because having a vision of something good or bad it’d be pretty cool to actually have,” Schaeffer said.

The worry stone is just one little piece of Dena’ina spirituality – one that Schaeffer and the other kids can hold in their hands. It’s a tiny window into a worldview that they’re not being taught in school or at church. And Lary Hill hopes they’ll understand someday, when they’re old enough to need it.