The Gifts of Water
by Larry Merculieff
Summary: The waters of the riverways and the oceans were and are sacred to Aleut peoples. In this essay, Merculieff shares the values of water and through sharing his personal memoirs, brings forward the lessons and legacy of the Aleut people to strengthen the heart and our ability to make decisions for the benefit of the waters, and the whole.
There are many that are grateful to the Muckleshoot Nation for hosting the canoes from many indigenous nations. All of our ancestors used to meet each other in the same way we are meeting and greeting each other in this gathering of water connected nations, but it was forgotten. Now it is returning once again and the Ancestors are very happy that our nations are rediscovering the sacred aspects of the water and the craft that were used to travel with their precious cargo of families and to exchange ways of the Real Human Being between nations.
The waters of the riverways and the oceans were and are sacred to all our peoples. Let us remember all her sacred aspects. Water cleanses our bodies, heals open wounds and gives us sustenance our bodies require to live. Water purifies everything it comes into contact with. Water was and is used in sacred ceremonies to celebrate the live-giving force of Mother Earth. All creatures, large and small depend on water to survive and thrive, be they insects, plants, birds, marine mammals, fish, trees, one-celled creatures, and human beings. Water teaches us many lessons. We are taught how not to fight the flow of the river of life, but to go with it. We are taught how being fluid and soft can even mold and shape the greatest of mountains and boulders. We are taught that water reflects our moods and emotions. Walking next to the water raises our spirits, even when we are feeling downtrodden. Being in the water always refreshes us. Our bodies are made mostly of water. We are born in a salty sea of water in the womb. Water gives us clouds to moderate the temperatures of Mother Earth through the shield it provides us from the great heat of Grandfather Sun. Water cleanses our internal organs by helping to keep them healthy and to flush out toxins from our bodies. Water comes to us in the forms all creatures need at the times they need it, be it snow, rain, ice, or fog. Without the ice we would not have the polar bear or the permafrost. Without snow we would not have creatures like the snowshoe hare, the rivers, and the plants would not have a coat to wear while they sleep through the winter. Without rain, we would not have fresh water or lakes, or fertile lands where berries and all the bounty of the land we depend on grow, including all the healing and food plants, vegetables, and fruits. Without water, the rocks would not break down to create cliffs for seabirds to rest and nest on, or shorelines for seals to breed on, or sand beaches for the crabs and turtles to bring their young into the world. Without water to create the rocks at the bottom of the sea that sea plants root on, we would not have corals for the protection of fishes, or growth of other plants so important to those of the seas and oceans. And without water, our ancestors would not have connected around the world. Without water, we would not have the abundance and varieties of plant, animal, insects, and flowers to nourish our bodies and spirits.
We are nothing without the sacred waters of Mother Earth. And so, our ancestors built craft in ways taught us by the seas, rivers, and oceans…ways to create beauty and function to honor the waters, and ways of respect, reciprocity, reverence, and humility in the face of the awesomeness of the gifts, wisdom, and power of water. Let us continue to listen and conduct ourselves correctly to receive the gifts and wisdom of water or we will lose that which we are given, and let the Elders lead us in the ways of the Real Human Being. To forget is to bring about our own destruction.
We thank the Muckleshoot for giving us the opportunity to honor Mother Earth’s waters and the ways of our ancestors by hosting this gathering. May our ancestors bless you for what you are doing and the Creator hold you in the hands of the Spirit That Lives in All Things.
I come from a people who have always understood that governments are not necessarily benevolent. I lived in the last stages of Pribilof Aleut servitude to the U.S. government, where food, clothing, housing were rationed, letters censored…where the U.S. government agent was the police, judge, and jury, where the men in our village worked 17 hours a day in back breaking work for the U.S. government…where it was considered normal for a man to become debilitated by their mid-30’s. All because we were the only people in America who were enslaved by the U.S. government to kill seals so the government could sell their pelts.
I remember being hungry most of my childhood because the government would not allow our traditional subsistence. Even today, the government still has a law on their books that stipulates that any Aleut who takes northern fur seals outside of the six-week government controlled harvest period, we face a ten thousand dollar fine and ten years in prison. A food source we can prove through examination of midden sites, we have eaten for ten thousand years. I became an outlaw at age six when my uncle took me out to poach seals so we wouldn’t be hungry that day. I saw how the government agents would demean my father and all the other men on a daily basis, year after year after year in the worst of ways. I saw a man trash the government agents office out of anger and rage for how we were being treated. The government made an example out of him and banished him to the end of the island without food or water or even a rifle for three months…and I saw how my people smuggled rations to him and a rifle and shotgun…so he survived. But when he returned, he was never to be with his wife and five children ever again as the government placed them each, individually in different homes so the family would never be a unit again. I saw how, at that point, he took to drinking every day of his life until he died about 7 years ago, and every member of his family became alcoholic…so no one dared challenge the agent. But, my uncle and several other men managed to smuggle letters out of the village to Howard Rock who printed the letters in the new Tundra Times in 1961. Five years later we get our freedom bill in Congress as a result, ironically called the Fur Seal Act of 1966.
I was 18 when the tribal council asked me to represent them in Washington, D.C. to seek the rights of any U.S. citizen to establish a city, to own our own homes, to vote in state and national elections. I knew nothing about politics or how the U.S. government operated, but I knew my people were depending on me…and it was with that knowledge that I became a fierce advocate for my people. They gave me the fire, the support, and my inspiration because our cause was just and morally correct in the face of huge injustices was suffered.
Little did I realize that I would have to lead the fight for my peoples right to eat fur seals for another twenty years. I witnessed the time when the government, in 1973 unilaterally cut off our sister village’s right to take seals for food and joined them in their fight to take 386 seals a year for food. It took five years to restore that right. And when the animal rights groups around the world unified to stop the government sponsored kill of thousands of fur seals every year, they chose to attack my people in full page ads in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and the Houston Chronicle, depicting our people as brutal, blood thirsty killers of seals. We received hate mail from around the world and Congress was getting 100,000 letters a month. So, the government announced its intent to unilaterally withdraw from the Pribilofs, with no thought about the welfare of my people. The year the government pulled out, we lost 80 percent of our wage base and cost of living skyrocketed 2000 percent. As a direct result, in 1983, we experienced a hundred documented suicide attempts, three murders and four suicides in a community of 500 people while I was the community leader. I saw the good, bad, and ugly…and the heroic in my people that year where I had to justify to Congressional staffers why we wanted to eat seals for food while they wondered why don’t we eat beef, chicken, and fish from the store.
I had the honor and privilege to co-chair the planning committee for, and to lead, the Katie John March. It took 17 appearances on radio and TV, newspaper articles, and the effort of a lot of good people, over months to conduct the largest subsistence rights march in this state’s history to get Governor Knowles to back down from appealing the lower court ruling in favor of Katie John.
A year later, as director of Public Policy and Advocacy I get a call from Port Graham. They said their subsistence take of bear was cut and their take of king salmon was reduced considerably…to the point that the village was worried that they would go hungry that winter…so they sent two local fishermen out to catch as much halibut as possible. When they returned to the village, a blue shirt and a brown shirt were waiting at the dock to cite them because they came back with 27 halibut, 23 more than state sport halibut laws allowed. So, they called us for help. Taking a page out of the Barrow Duck In, I called all the regional leaders whose people subsistence fished for halibut and asked if they would be prepared to call out all their fishermen on the same day to get as much halibut as they can. They all agreed. I called then Gov. Knowles and told him what we were prepared to do. A week later they dropped enforcement with the agreement that we would vigorously pursue legalization of our take. It took four years to get our rights to take a specie that was a staple in our diets for thousands of years. In the case of Aleuts, ten thousand years. As one of the people involved in this fight, I distinctly recall how we proved that the entire take of halibut for subsistence was 1 percent of the human take of halibut. 99 percent are taken by sport and commercial fishermen. And one member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council argued that if and when the Alaska Native population increased to the point of needing another 1 percent, that it would not come out of his sport fishing constituency. We won that battle…in a way. The regulations that were promulgated materially and significantly changed our cultural practices.
The point of my telling you this is that:
1. We cannot depend on government to be benevolent, even today as they have no clue as to what this is all about and why it is so important to us. We must undertake a huge effort to educate them if we are seeking redress.
2. Injustices regarding subsistence continues and will only get worse as more and more people come into Alaska to sport hunt and fish, and as outsiders come in who have no clue as to who we are and why this way of life is so important. And as the urban centers grow, our influence of state legislatures and politicians will only diminish over time. I was in Anuktuvak Pass and the elders there told me that the state, under protest of the people, allowed a permit to build a caribou sport hunting lodge to be built right at the pass the caribou have to go through to get to their breeding grounds, and the hunters are picking off the leaders…scattering the herd and severely disrupting the migration pattern. I was upriver of the Copper last year where an elder told me that he lost his family’s fishwheel site to an outsider that had been in his family for generations because he did not get the proper permit, but the outsider did. It goes on an on.
3. Government regulations are materially and significantly changing our traditional practices and slowly reducing our take of subsistence foods, like a death by a thousand cuts, where our villages are becoming impoverished…but not dramatically so that it is noticeable. This approach is insidious in that we are like the proverbable frog in the pot…slowly heat the pot and the frog doesn’t know enough to move until it can’t.
4. Because of how tied we are to the lands, waters, and wild foods, community wellness is also directly tied. We will see deterioriating wellness in our villages as our rights and access, and wildlife populations diminish due to outside encroachment, and climate changes…and that translates into more lost youth, suicides, violence, and sickness.
5. And finally, that when people work together, with personal agendas aside, we accomplish far more than we ever expected or hoped for.
This issue is not about who should take over, who should have the power, who really represents the people. This issue is about how many more people have to die; how much more we experience devastating cultural erosion; how many more young people kill themselves; how much more suffering our peoples have to endure…and what we choose to do about it. If we choose to protect our own interests as organizations or to protect our individual standing as leaders because of ego or greed, our generation will be condemned by future generations as having struck the killing blow to our collective being. If the leaders here cannot put aside their organizational hats to act in the true best interest of our people as a whole, they should step aside and let others who can step in. The elders teach that nothing is created outside until it is created inside first…so we are in conflict outside because we are in conflict inside. We criticize and judge others because we criticize and judge ourselves first. So, if we don’t know how to resolve conflict because of all our internalized oppression and intergenerational trauma, then bring in people who can help to guide the dialogue and discourse until we are all truly unified statewide at least on this one most critical defining issue of our time. At the very least, the cost of conflict and lack of unity relinquishes our power as peoples to Congress and/or the Secretary, because, without a unified approach, they can pick and choose the parts they like. Ultimately, in the context of our peoples, the cost of separation and conflict at this time, for me, is abhorrent and unthinkable. I appeal to the hearts and minds of everyone here to contemplate these costs if we fail to act outside our own personal and organizational interests. We come from great peoples, and that greatness was only because we stood together and helped each other. That is how we survived and thrived for thousands of years under the greatest of challenges. Now is not the time to forget that undeniable fact. I know everyone here is here because your heart is with the people. I ask that this heart come forward now.