An exhibit at the Library of Congress examines
the vibrant, incredibly moving human exchanges that took place between the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska and Native Alaskans, during the years 1794 to about 1915. These remarkable priests, intrepid heroes such as the Russian “giant” Ioann Veniaminov and the Creole Iakov Netsvetov, were not merely essential to the success of the colony established by the Russian American Company in 1784, they were also the agents through which much of the culture and languages of Native Alaskans were preserved. Only in recent years has the magnitude of their achievement been recognized—and most appropriately during this 200th anniversary of the founding of the first Orthodox mission in North America in 1794.
This is a very interesting topic in general; what I am focusing on here is the page Preserving Native Languages, which points out:
Among the most enduring legacies of Russian America are the works written and published in Native Alaskan languages: translations of Christian texts, dictionaries of Native words, grammars, primers, and prayer books… Soon after the founding of Russian America, attempts were made to learn Native languages. As early as 1805 Nikolai Resanov [sic—should be Rezanov; he had a famous love affair in San Francisco] of the Russian American Company compiled a dictionary of some 1200 words in six Native Alaskan languages. The greatest proponent of multilingualism was Father Ioann Veniaminov. He created an alphabet for the Aleut language, and, with the help of the Aleut Toien (Chief) Ivan Pan’kov, wrote and published in 1834 an Aleut catechism, the first book published in an Alaskan Native language.
As Bishop Innokentii, Veniaminov encouraged the study of Tlingit and a variety of Aleut-Eskimo dialects such as Atkan and Central Yup’ik, most successfully through his Creole protege, the priest Iakov Netsvetov. The latter, in turn, trained other Native and Creole priests such as Innokentii Shaiashnikov and Lavrentii Salamatov, who continued his work well into the American period.
There are links to images of pamphlets, books, and even (for some reason) an 1847 performance evaluation of Innokentii Shaiashnikov (I only wish it were better reproduced so that I could try to read it). Many thanks to the indefatigable plep for posting this.