Ilarion was born and raised on St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea, where he lived for half his life. He now lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He was among the last generation of Unangan (Unungan), or Aleut, peoples raised in a traditional way. In 1786 and 1787, the Russian fur traders transplanted Aleuts from the Aleutian archipelago to the Pribilofs to serve as a slave labor force to harvest fur seals. These Aleuts became the survivors of a holocaust at the hands of the Russians that took 80% of their population within a 50-year period.
“By accident really, I discovered a scandalous federal government abuse that began in the nineteenth century and continued until very recently. We purchased Alaska shortly after the Civil War, fought partly on the issue of slavery. Yet, within three years of the purchase, the federal government established a slave-like relationship with the Aleuts on Alaska’s remote Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The government promoted and sponsored a system of hidden, internal colonialism that flourished decade after decade despite dramatic and progressive reforms in the rest of the country.” – Dorothy Jones, A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts Under U.S. Rule
Their fate did not improve from there. Disease, poverty, an interrupted way of life—many barriers would continue to challenge the Aleut people. Outside control did not end with the fur traders. Until the 1980s, the US government occupied their territory and instigated a system of economic dependence that nearly led to the collapse of the Aleut. In the early 1980s, his people survived a profound crisis initiated by the federal government’s decision to withdraw economic and other activities from the islands. Though initially a community-wide crisis, this was ultimately a spiritual, cultural, and economic turning point in all of their lives.
“Deep within me, I felt the decisions at this crossroads were being guided by unseen forces, and whatever would transpire was necessary for the spiritual journeys required to move we villagers to the next phase of our lives. We had tried everything to stop this event from occurring, but even all our time-tested skills, abilities, commitment to our people, and persistence could not stem the tide of this unwelcome change.” – Ilarion Merculieff
The urgency of the situation prompted Aleut leadership to take huge risks in their decision-making processes. They discarded conventional western economic and community planning approaches and devised their own… In time, the leaders remembered the wisdom of their ancestors who had always placed great importance on the process of reaching decisions. The “Wisdomkeepers” had understood that if the process was constructed with the proper spirit and intent, the whole or result would always be greater than the sum of its parts and would exceed all individual expectations. The wisdom of the elders proved to be the correct approach to use during this crisis in the Pribilofs. Results far exceeded expectations as the focus shifted from goal to process.
“We have a rich heritage of strong peoples who had visionary, dedicated, and courageous leaders we must not forget. We Dare Not Forget. We dare not forget because today’s generation faces new challenges that will continue to ask [us] to have courage, integrity, persistence and vision to the same degree, and perhaps more, than what was required of our people in the past.” Ilarion Merculieff
Ilarion’s Current Book
Wisdom Keeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People Paperback – July 19, 2016
Ilarion Merculieff weaves the remarkable strands of his life and culture into a fascinating account that begins with his traditional Unangan (Aleut) upbringing on a remote island in the Bering Sea, through his immersion in both the Russian Orthodox Church and his tribe’s holistic spiritual beliefs. He recounts his developing consciousness and call to leadership, and describes his work of the past thirty years bringing together Western science and Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and wisdom to address the most pressing issues of our time.
Tracing the extraordinary history of his ancestors—who mummified their dead in a way very similar to the Egyptians, constructed one of the most sophisticated high seas kayaks in the world, and densely populated shorelines in North America for ten thousand years—Merculieff describes the rich traditions of spirituality, art, dance, music, storytelling, science, and technology that enabled them to survive their harsh conditions. The Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands endured slavery at the hands of the U.S. government and were placed in an internment camp during WWII, where they suffered malnutrition and disease that decimated 10 percent of their population.
Merculieff movingly describes how the compassion of Indigenous Elders has guided him in his work and life, which has been rife with struggle and hardship. He explains that environmental degradation, the extinction of species, pollution, war, and failing public institutions are all reflections of our relationships with ourselves. In order to deal with these critical challenges, he argues, we must reenter the chaos of the natural world, rediscover our balance of the masculine and the sacred feminine, and heal ourselves. Then, perhaps, we can heal the world.
More on the Unungan Story
Summary: Ilarion tells a story from his childhood about learning through observation of Aleut hunters and seabirds how one profoundly connects with the earth. 2010.
Summary: Ilarion shares about the spirituality of the Aleut people.
By Fredericka Martin
Summary: Martin describes the year in her life when she lived on St. Paul Island, which corresponded with the historical ending of the occupation of the island by the Russian-American Company. Includes personal stories, historical information and experiences shared with the Merculieff family. Ilarion Larry Merculief quoted on Pg. 325. Source: University of Alaska Press. 2010.
By Dorothy Jones Adapted for Arctic Circle from a book published by the University Press of America. 1980.
Summary: The history of the Aleut people revealed.
by Vincent Schilling
Summary:Merculieff’s life and teachings are featured in a chapter of this book. He was one of ten Native American men in the U.S. featured, chosen because of his pivotal role during a time where many of his Aleut people on St. Paul Island experienced community-wide depression, suicides and suicide attempts, and murders. Second Story Press, 2008.
By Larry Merculieff
Summary:In this article published in Cultural Survival in 2010, Merculieff shares the heart-breaking stories of his people and their resilience through what at times were insurmountable odds. An inspiring testament of the human spirit and the strength of cultural roots tied to the land and a deepening understanding that leadership based on process, not product is the way to care for both people and the Earth.
By Helen D. Corbett and Susanne M. Swibold
Summary: Essay focusing on the history of Aleuts. Includes quotes from Ilarion Merculieff. The Amiq Institute, 2000.
By Larry Merculieff
Summary: Ilarion shares his personal journey through one of the difficult twists in Aleut history: After 200 years of occupation, the federal government is leaving and taking all of the economic opportunity with it. This memoir takes us from the brink of collapse to the unknown way forward that only crisis could call forth. University of Alaska, 2003.
By Larry Merculieff
Summary: Merculieff describes a key rite of passage experience—an initiation important to his coming of age as an Aleut youth through internalizing the wisdom of his Elders on subsistence fishing for halibut. University of Alaska, Anchorage.
By Larry Merculieff
Summary: Ilarion recounts a story of himself as a child learning to question authority. When a government appointed white doctor among his people demands he receive an unwanted medical treatment, Ilarion barely outruns him. Not every child in the village would be so lucky. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2006.
By Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff
Summary: In a poignant and heart-tugging recount of Aleut history, Ilarion gives the example of his own people to illuminate our understanding that healing often cannot happen on the individual level. Only as a community can we work together to reconcile our past traumatic events.