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Authors: Ilarion Merculieff

Tags: #HIS028000 History / Native American, #POL045000 Political Science / Colonialism & Post-colonialism

Wisdom Keeper

BOOK: Wisdom Keeper
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Wisdom Keeper
One Man's Journey
Untold History
of the
Unangan People

Ilarion Merculieff

North Atlantic Books

Berkeley, California

Copyright © 2016 by Ilarion Merculieff. All rights reserved. No portion of this book, except for brief review, may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the written permission of the publisher. For information contact North Atlantic Books.

Published by

North Atlantic Book

Berkeley, California

Cover photo by Venue Herbito

Cover design by John Yates

Wisdom Keeper: One Man's Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People
is sponsored and published by the Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences (dba North Atlantic Books), an educational nonprofit based in Berkeley, California, that collaborates with partners to develop cross-cultural perspectives, nurture holistic views of art, science, the humanities, and healing, and seed personal and global transformation by publishing work on the relationship of body, spirit, and nature.

North Atlantic Books' publications are available through most bookstores. For further information, visit our website at
or call 800-733-3000.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Merculieff, Larry, author.

Title: Wisdom Keeper: one man's journey to honor the untold history of the Unangan people / Ilarion Merculieff.

Description: Berkeley, California : North Atlantic Books, 2016.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015041102 (print) | LCCN 2016005037 (ebook) | ISBN 9781623170493 (paperback) | ISBN 9781623170509 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Merculieff, Larry. | Aleuts—Biography. | Pribilof Islands (Alaska)—Biography. | Political activists—Alaska. | Aleuts—History. | Pribilof Islands (Alaska)—History. | BISAC: HISTORY / Native American. | POLITICAL SCIENCE / Colonialism & Post-Colonialism.

Classification: LCC E99.A34 M473 2016 (print) | LCC E99.A34 (ebook) | DDC 979.8/4—dc23

LC record available at

This book is dedicated to all the young people of the world who will take up where we leave including my son Ian, my daughters Leatha and Marissa, and my grandchildren Kanuux, Hamati, and Leah.

It is my prayer that they never forget how our peoples suffered and prevailed.


These stories are the work of more than twenty years of writing. I did not feel that they were ready to be told until now. I have many people I wish to thank. Most of all, I wish to thank the Unangan people of Saint Paul and Saint George Island. Without their help I could not have written this book. They were the people who inspired me to be who I am through their patience, fortitude, courage, love, ingenuity, humor, sharing, caring, unselfishness, humanity, humility, and persistence through trials and tribulations that would challenge the strongest of human spirit.

I wish to thank my ancestors for teaching me what it is to be a real human being. Their spirituality and ingenious technologies feed me to this day. Their intelligence as real human beings allowed us to survive and thrive under the harsh conditions of the Bering Sea. The fact that we are here today is a testament to them. Despite genocide, internment, and slavery that we experienced during the last 250 years, we are still living in our ancestral territories.

I also wish to especially give credit to Sergie Savorof, my Kuuyux, who gave me his name at age four; my parents John and Stefanida Merculieff, who gave me love and the liberty to explore who I was without interference; my Aachaa, Nick Stepetin, who showed me how to be a good hunter and a real human being; my aunt Sophie Stepetin, whose life wisdom lives with me today; my papa, Paul Merculieff, who shared his life with me openly and inspired me with his humility; Mike Zacharof, who shared his love for our people through his work; Howard Luke who taught me how to speak from my heart instead of my head; and my uncle Iliodor (Eddie) Merculieff, who inspired me to work for and with my people.

Of course, the list would not be complete without thanking all the Elders and spiritual leaders from the different traditions who shared their ways with me openly, including the Zulu, Indigenous peoples of Australia, Mapuche, Kechua/Ayamarra, Maori, the Maya, Tarahumara
of northwestern Mexico, the Inca, Hopi, Sioux, Haundenasaunee (Iroquois), the Stoney Elders of Alberta, the Yupik, Tlingit, Unangan, the Dene of Alaska, and the Inupiat.

I wish to thank all my friends who helped me over the years by reading chapters in this book and giving me feedback and suggesting edits. I especially wish to thank Libby Roderick and Sumner Macleish—Libby for her undying belief over the years that these stories need to be written and published and for her role in unwrapping the traumas I suffered, and Sumner for her patience and persistence in helping to edit my manuscript before sending it to the publisher. And I wish to thank my faithful friends for sticking by me through my life, including George and Patrick Pletnikoff, Jenny Norris, Sharon (Shay) Sloan, Salila, and Susanne Swibold, and Helen Corbett for exposing me to spiritual experiences in my adult life. I also thank my siblings, Rinna, Eva, Thomas, and Eliah for their unconditional love and for what they taught me.

And finally, I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the Kalliopeia Foundation. Without their support this work could not have been done.



Chapter 1

The Unangan (Aleut): Real People Who Live Near the Shoreline

Chapter 2

Genocide and Slavery

Chapter 3

Callorhinus ursinus:
The Northern Fur Seal

Chapter 4


Chapter 5

My Legacy as an Unangan

Chapter 6

Boxer Shorts and Seals

Chapter 7

Every Unangan Child: The Indirect Effects of Government Oppression

Chapter 8


Chapter 9

Death of a Six-Year-Old

Chapter 10

A Personal View of Internal and External Oppression

Chapter 11

A Young Rebel Is Born

Chapter 12

School Without Love

Chapter 13

Death in a Village Is Very Personal

Chapter 14

I Was a “Hooker”

Chapter 15

University Life

Chapter 16

Lobbying for My People Begins

Chapter 17

Family Life

Chapter 18

The Government Pullout: A People in Peril

Chapter 19


Chapter 20

Another Kind of Death

Chapter 21

The Boat Harbor and Private Enterprise

Chapter 22

The Creator Has a Sense of Humor

Chapter 23

The Spiritual Journey

Chapter 24

The Bear Claw Necklace and the United Nations

Chapter 25

As the Island Turns, Part I

Chapter 26

As the Island Turns, Part II

Chapter 27

An Unangan Love Story

Chapter 28

A Yupik Election

Chapter 29

The Heart of the Halibut: A Rite of Passage of an Unangan Boy

Chapter 30

The Bering Sea Council of Elders

Chapter 31

The Mapuche of Southern Argentina

Chapter 32

What the Elders Say

Chapter 33

Contemplating and Questioning Everything

About the Author


This book is a treasure and a rare gift, for many reasons. The stories it tells—and the worlds it invites us into—offer profound insight, medicine, and teaching for this turbulent time we collectively face. While our planetary home and the web of life itself are shaken by loss, greed, instability, and violence,
Wisdom Keeper
illuminates ways forward by remembering a hidden past, practicing cultural healing and forgiveness, and revealing conscious, balanced, and caring ways forward, all at once.

Sometimes I wonder how we might all be different if we were raised in supportive communities of playful, attentive, and affirming adults in places of great beauty—in a reverent and reciprocal relationship with a wild and vital living world. When I first met Ilarion, I saw how that kind of idyllic upbringing could result in a person at once youthful and ancient, spontaneous and deeply considered.

What I didn't know then, and understand better now, is how the multigenerational pain and suffering of his people have also contributed to the wise and eloquent elder he's become. As I've experienced him over time, I learned that his way of marrying apparent contradictions informs a gifted messenger, advocate, and social healer.

I have had the gift of knowing and working with Ilarion for about ten years. During that time, I've learned that being in his presence is often, in itself, transformative. What I didn't know previously was how presence could be conveyed or transmitted through written stories.

Presence is one of those elusive qualities we often read about or aspire to when we cultivate ourselves as human beings, as parents, as educators, or perhaps as leaders. Many self-help books and workshops attempt to teach it. Ilarion's journey, and the hidden history of his Unangan people, reveal that presence is an embodied truth of their culture. Reading his story evokes and awakens that distant yet remembered memory in me. It may, I hope, offer the same gift to you.

His ways of seeing, writing, and being are informed by a keenness of perception—without judgment or blame—that by example, models an integration of diverse ways of knowing. This story, and history, weave intuition, gut knowing, heart perceiving and spiritual insight with mental clarity to model a kind of whole-person approach to living that's rarely found outside of Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems. These stories are told in so accessible, lucid and palpable a way as to offer readers an integral experience of it.

From hearing Ilarion speak many times, I'd learned of his remarkable childhood and the ways he was raised by his community. The depth of acceptance, encouragement, and love he experienced growing up offer many vital insights into reimagining parenting and early childhood education. The ways he was mentored reveal key pathways and insights about how we teach and learn.

I had imagined from hearing his childhood tales that his Unangan people may have suffered less from colonialism, slavery, genocide, and oppression than many other Indigenous peoples. I now know that I had been wrong. The harms suffered by the Unangan people were as egregious, violent, persistent, and potentially soul-shattering as any conquest stories I've heard perpetuated elsewhere. But somehow, the beauty, power, and grace of their culture endured.

What's remarkable about this book is the way that it weaves personal narrative (which doubles as instructions and insights for becoming a human being) with political history. Reading it awakens me to understanding previously hidden chapters of our nation's lineage of conquest, greed, and violence, while enlivening me with an immersive story that conveys embodied and heartfelt teachings about humans' correct relationship—with our selves, each other, and our mother Earth.

Wisdom Keeper
integrates the wound and the gift of the Unangan people without shame or blame, but as an offering with true compassion, invitation, and warmth. With all that the Unangan people have suffered, it is their perseverance, kindness, and commitment to living in ways that honor the web of life, each other, and future generations that shines through.

I am not a scholar of Indigenous life ways or knowledge systems. I am a producer, communicator, and social entrepreneur who cofounded Bioneers, a nonprofit organization, in partnership with my husband, Kenny Ausubel. Bioneers identifies, gathers, connects, and disseminates visionary and practical solutions for restoring the Earth and people. We see the Earth as the mother of all issues, understanding that all of life is interconnected and interdependent. It's all alive, it's all intelligent, it's all connected, it's all relative. Our work helps to illuminate a positive and life-honoring future that's within our reach today.

Since its inception in 1990, Bioneers has had Indigenous voices and Traditional Ecological Knowledge at its heart. This has been due to an honoring of First Peoples as the Earth's old-growth cultures, and a recognition that their long history of living in right relationship to nature offers guidance for how to reinvent our own culture. My own journey has been inspired and informed by many Indigenous leaders, and my commitment to stand with First Peoples on behalf of Mother Life has deepened. Of many I have known, Ilarion has proven a most gifted and wise guide and teacher. I commend him to you.

In 1992, at Bioneers' annual conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we gathered elders from several pueblos to discuss the anniversary of Columbus “discovering” America. I'll never forget hearing Petuuche Gilbert of Acoma Pueblo say “Even before the Europeans came, the people who came from the West were welcomed. Even after five hundred years, in spite of all the bad feelings that have come about, we still welcome people who come to Acoma. We mean it, because we're all coexisting together.” What I heard in my heart was: “Five hundred years ago, you came, and we welcomed you with open arms. If you came again today, we would do the same.”

My jaw gaped with wonder, awed by the forgiveness, inclusivity and equanimity that man expressed, after so much harm and violence had been loosed upon his people. That began my apprenticeship, as I realized that Indigenous cultures, rituals and lifeways contain keys not only to our planetary ecological survival but also to the evolution of our conscious awareness as human beings.

What I've learned from Ilarion (and from my life) is what a big difference there is between knowing something in my head, and integrating understanding through my heart. Our culture tends to laud mental understanding, to the exclusion of our many intelligences. We imagine that speaking from a place of factual data confers authority; what I've come to understand is that it's true integration and embodied,
wisdom that is the most compelling teaching or leadership capacity we have to affect social change and healing.

My father used to say, when I was growing up, that people don't change unless or until they became extremely uncomfortable. In my life, that has proven to be true. I've needed to be shaken deeply, sometimes to the core, before opening myself to a new way of being. Perhaps that's true for whole cultures, as well. If it is, who better to provide insight than the cultures that have experienced and survived multigenerational trauma. I believe we are collectively on the verge of being shaken deeply and profoundly, as climate instability and rising social unrest challenge the core structures that Western civilization and corporate capitalism have been built upon.

Wisdom Keeper
also speaks to the cultural necessity of reimagining what the true masculine and feminine
are, as human qualities that are integral within us each and all, and that imbue all of life. In this time of radical gender reinvention, reexamining the masculine through how the Unangan men understood it is revelatory, hopeful, and inspiring.

As studies around the globe consistently reveal, when you increase the leadership of women in governance, business, community organizing, or any enterprise, virtually everyone and every living system benefits. As more women enter leadership in every sector, the economy, ecology, health, and peacemaking improve. The Athena Doctrine revealed that among 65,000 people surveyed in thirteen countries around the world, over 65 percent “feel that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.” The urgency of healing and elevating the feminine principle and creating spaces for women's and girls' emergence is essential, for without that, Ilarion notes, nothing new may be born into this world.

Wisdom Keeper
illustrates how, by surfacing and revealing the truth of the wound, the medicine and gift it contains can be revealed. Perhaps our Western culture's avoidance of facing the shadow and pain of our nation's brutal history is related to banishing the feminine—that which is vulnerable and mysterious, changeable and complex—to the invisible underworld. In my own work with diverse women leaders, it has commonly been true that those who arrive with the most severe histories of injustice, abuse, or trauma are those who often have the most to contribute to collective healing.

I trust you'll be nourished by this story, on many levels, as I have been. While so many hidden histories of conquest for gain are surfacing from Indigenous and other peoples all over the world, may the shame, pain and trauma that occurred be integrated through the telling into revealing healing pathways forward. Through healing storytelling, reading, and integration, may the beauty, grace, and spiritual wholeness that radiates through these enduring old-growth cultures invite us to embrace the feminine, redefine leadership and gender, and re-engage with the mystery and abundant wisdom of the natural world.

This is a story of hope. It's a story of collective and cultural tenacity, endurance, and perseverance. It's a beam of radiant and pure starlight shining through a shrouded history of dominance. It's a story of resilience about how grace, kindness, and fully awakened human consciousness can prevail against immense odds. It's a story of remembering who we really are, as we're all indigenous to someplace.
Wisdom Keeper
is about cultural healing and communal, collaborative co-creation with our Mother, the Earth. May its beauty and vital life force inspire and enchant you.

—Nina Simons, cofounder and president of Bioneers

BOOK: Wisdom Keeper
13.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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