Individual Spiritual Healing Central to the Healing of the Whole Community
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.
When the U.S. government ended commercial seal harvesting in 1983, it marked a spiritual, cultural and economic turning point in the lives of the Aleut people of the Bering Sea’s remote Pribilof Islands.
For some 200 years commercial sealing provided 80 percent of the local jobs and all government services, such as marine transportation, operation of the electric power plants, airport maintenance, and provisioning of home heating fuel for the 600 people on St. Paul and St. George.
The year the government pulled out, history notes three murders, four suicides, and 100 documented suicide attempts. In contrast, there were no suicides and one murder in the previous 100 years.
But Aleuts didn’t inhabit the Pribilofs year-round until 1786 and 1787 when Russian fur traders transplanted Aleuts from the Aleutian Archipelago to the Pribilofs to serve as slave labor in the harvest of fur seals. However, Aleuts established hunting camps on the islands long before the Russian arrival. Within 50 years, 80 percent of the Aleut people taken as forced labor had perished at the hands of the Russians. For 40 years after the United States and Russian governments signed the Alaska Treaty of Cession in 1867, which included the Pribilof Islands, the United States contracted with private companies to continue harvesting fur seal pelts. And Aleut people continued to serve as a captive labor force.
Eventually, in the early 1960s, letters smuggled off the islands and published in the Tundra Times, Alaska’s first Native-owned newspaper, led to investigations by the Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Congress. Legislation was passed in 1966 granting Pribilof Aleuts the rights of other citizens of the United States. What did not change was the Pribilof Aleuts economic base; they continued to depend on the U.S. government to provide jobs in the federally managed fur seal harvesting program.
After a well-funded media campaign – including full-page ads in national newspapers that characterized the Aleuts as brutal, bloodthirsty, greedy, killers of animals – that lasted for some 15 years – the U.S. government decided in 1982 to not only stop the commercial seal harvest, but to withdraw completely from the Pribilofs within a year. Predictably, the decision created community wide anxiety and it left the Aleuts feeling angry and powerless.
In the year before the government pulled out of the Pribilofs, the Aleut leadership was under enormous pressure to come up with quick solutions for providing a new economic base for the people. At one point the situation was so desperate that plans were made to buy one-way airline tickets to the mainland for all villagers. Another time the young men of St. Paul devised a plan to secede from the United States, declare war, and take over the local U.S. Coast Guard station by armed force. It was this urgency that prompted the Aleut leadership to discard conventional Western economic and community planning. Instead the people relied on the wisdom of their ancestors who placed great importance on the process of reaching decisions.
Ten years later, St. Paul developed one of the most robust economies of any rural community in Alaska, with a per capita income of $34,000 – $10,000 more than the average income before the federal government pulled out. But did it solve our problems? No. The spiritual sickness still continued. Money only feeds the addiction.
Now we have had time to reflect and do some soul searching. Why did the animal rights groups focus on “saving” the seals and not the Aleuts? Why did the American public respond so strongly to their message? Why didn’t anyone understand our need to eat seal for food? Why did we, as a community, allow chaos and despair to reach such tragic proportions before we acted? Why did we succeed in our goals beyond our expectations?
Today we have learned that the spiritual healing of each individual is central to the healing of the whole community and the elimination of conflict. The Hopi and Maori wisdom-keepers say we are entering the World of the Fifth Hoop; a time of reconnection among the four sacred colors – red, black, white and yellow – to re-establish balance on Mother Earth. The wisdom-keepers tell us that this will be a time of great healing, that it will begin in the North when a hoop of 100 eagle feathers is completed. The healing the wisdom-keepers talk about is the process of reconnecting to the sacred within each of us. They understand that the underlying cause for personal and external conflict is our disconnection from the sacred within all things. The fundamental cause of this disconnection stems from experiences that wounded our souls.
Veterans, and the doctors who treat them, understand the stresses of war come with long-lasting scars. Doctors call the profound depression, sense of isolation and utter despair that is common among veterans Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most people exposed to a traumatic or stressful events experience some of the symptoms of the stress disorder. One of the most common symptoms is a survival mechanism that allows people to detach from their feelings, using strategies to escape the present, so that they don’t continually relive the trauma. Addictions are nothing but strategies to escape the present moment. In turn, prolonged emotional detachment can lead to spiritual emptiness, which people then try to fill with addictions like alcohol, drugs and television.
Yup’ik Eskimo Harold Napoleon was among the first to apply the medical condition to understanding the social ills that have haunted generations of Alaska Native people. In his book The Way of the Human Being, he suggests that the soul-hurting experiences of our ancestors are like a shockwave through time that has transferred the condition from generation to generation by action, behavior and words. Emotionally and spiritually detached parents raised detached children, who use addictive behaviors to fill the spiritual void.
The Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands experienced anxieties, depression, fears, suicides, murder and other violence because we are the offspring of holocaust survivors who left us this legacy of spiritual sickness. Disconnecting from the sacred within ourselves allows us to feel separate from others and all creation. The lesson of the Pribilofs is to use the wisdom of the elders to reconnect to the sacred within each of us.
Larry Merculieff is the former deputy director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. He was chairman of the Pribilof Inter-organizational Council of St. Paul in 1983 when the federal government pulled out.