“Until we reconcile the individual with the environment, the elders say, conditions will continue to worsen, and Alaska will have a front row seat.” – Ilarion Merculieff
St. Paul Island is the largest of the Pribilof Islands at 43 square miles. For the Aleut who evolved in an intimate relationship in this environment, the land is small, when compared to the sea, and the human community is tiny when compared to the abundance of birds, fish, reindeer, sea lions and other local flora and fauna.
The Aleut, as all indigenous peoples who have sustained an intimate contact with their immediate environments for generations, notice the subtlest of changes to this flora and fauna. In Alaska where the effects of climate change are recorded as the most dramatic in the world (only Siberia is on par), Native communities are on the front lines experiencing the negative impacts of climate change. What to many peoples living in urban environments sounds very theoretical is a daily reality for the Aleut who still depend on subsistence from the Islands for survival.
“Alaska is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.” – Dr. F. Stuart “Terry” Chapin III, ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks
In Alaska, sea ice levels are decreasing and ocean temperatures are rising. This means species that have thrived here for thousands of years are losing their health, their habitat and their ground. In Alaska alone, in 2004 34 villages were flooded out. For the Aleut, this means that 10,000 year-old the ways of surviving and thriving in this environment are no longer entirely relevant. And it’s not just about food. These ways of life are essential to the healthy evolution of people and culture. Living in reciprocal co-existence with the sea lions, the fur seals, the salmon—this is an essential part of how Aleuts become whole men and women.
Instead of thriving, young Aleuts are self-destructing without the ability to continue the lifeways of their people. An alarming 70% of young men ages 17–27 have been lost to suicide, alcoholism or prison. For Aleuts on the front lines of climate change, this is a “crisis,” not a “change.”
And the Aleut are not alone in this. “From the Alaskan arctic down the length of Turtle Island to El Salvador, Native people report a shift significant enough to rework ancient relationships with the land and water,” reports Charlie Otto Rasmussen after attending a summit of Native peoples from throughout North America. And for all Native peoples, this means their lifeways are threatened as well.
Rather than looking only at the crisis and the fate of indigenous peoples on these front lines, we can also perceive from a long history of resilience in the face of daunting odds, that there is wisdom and knowledge to be gained from the Aleut and other indigenous peoples about how to overcome adverse conditions.
“Perhaps the “miner’s canary” formulation could be revised, so the canary escapes the cage, flaps its wings, and shows the hapless miner a safe way out of the toxic mine. Indigenous knowledge and experience has the potential to help the rest of humanity get more out of harm’s way.” – Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker from Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crises
More on Native Peoples and Climate Change
How indigenous knowledge is changing what we know about the Arctic (Dec 2016)
Partial Transcript from Video — This group of researchers couldn’t be more different these hunters got their education living off the land and Canada’s far north the scientists got their education at universities in southern Canada and Europe but in a picture increasingly common across Canada’s North these two groups are joining forces emerging in with knowledge no I’m starting to see more dizzy or scars from way back then with science and technology there we go got the same marked and we’re good to better understand climate changes radical transformation of the
The relationship between science and indigenous knowledge hasn’t always been so easy in the past in USA scientists would often do research in the Arctic and then just leave community members they they were seldom told about research findings or how they might impact their lives in you and knowledge of the land animals was rarely acknowledged if it was even used at all
Indigenous peoples who have intimate and sustained contact with their lands and waters and who have maintained the spiritual basis for relating to everything in their environment have a profound understanding of what “sustainability” really means even though that is not the word that they would use. Western concepts of sustainability generally are used out of meaningful context, limiting the depth to which we can go collectively and as a society in restoring harmony in our relationship with Mother Earth. Indigenous elders world-wide say that one day the world will look to indigenous peoples for the wisdom in caring for our Earth Mother, and many feel the time is NOW as her life supporting systems are being pushed to the edge of viability.
Ilarion Merculieff is a traditional Aleut messenger dedicated to sharing Indigenous elder wisdom and the messages of Indigenous spiritual leaders with the world. He has nearly four decades of experience serving his people, the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands and other Indigenous Peoples, in a number of capacities, locally to internationally. Larry is a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights/wisdom, and harmonious relationship with the Earth.
Close to Merculieff’s heart are issues related to cultural and community wellness, traditional ways of living, Elder wisdom, and the environment. Having had a traditional upbringing, Merculieff has been, and continues to be, a strong voice advocating the meaningful application of traditional knowledge and wisdom obtained from Elders in Alaska and throughout the world when dealing with modern day challenges. As the Coordinator for the Bering Sea Council of Elders, Merculieff works with some of the most revered Elders from seven regions throughout Alaska focusing on the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem and the viability and health of the coastal and river cultures dependent on it. Merculieff has shared Elder wisdom locally, nationally, and internationally, and his writings and interviews have appeared in such publications as the Winds of Change, YES, Red Ink, Alaska Geographic, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Kindred Spirits. Larry Merculieff was featured in National Wildlife magazine as an “American Hero”, having called national and international attention to industrialized overfishing and major adverse changes in the Bering Sea ecosystem.
Summary: Larry Merculieff, spoke on the opening day of WILD9 , the 9th World Wilderness Congress about what his people, the Aleuts from the Pribilof Islands, are experiencing first hand as a result of climate change.
Source: The WILD Foundation. November, 2009.
Summary: Discussion with Ilarion Merculieff, Tom Goldtooth and Anishnabe Winona Laduke.
Source: Bioneers Radio, 2013.
Summary: Long before climate change dominated headlines, Alaska Native elders noticed that major shifts were taking place in their environment. It is not surprising that people living in remote place depending on wild fish and game should have a sophisticated and intimate knowledge of the weather and its impacts on the wild food they depend on. But the elders went further. Forty years ago, elders advised the young to prepare for hard times.
Source: Alaska Public Media PBS NPR 2012
Summary: The significant changes in the earth’s climate from global warming are impacting the Arctic more than any other point on earth. Today, many Native groups have united and are demanding changes so they can have the right to be cold. Guests are Patricia Cochran, Executive Director/Alaska Native Science Commission and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Chairwoman/Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Larry Merculieff, Deputy Director/ Alsaka Native Science Commission.
Source: Native America Calling. Tuesday, January 11, 2005.
Edited by Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker.
Summary: Indigenous nations are on the frontline of the current climate crisis. With cultures and economies among the most vulnerable to climate-related catastrophes, Native peoples are developing responses to climate change that serve as a model for Native and non-Native communities alike.
Source: Oregon State University Press. 2012
by Carol Landis and Jessica Fries-Gaither
Summary: Article presents some of the challenges of sharing what is known about climate change from the perspectives of Native Alaskans and “Western scientists.”
Source: Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears website. The Ohio State University. October 2009.
by Liz Shaw
Summary: Article about Aleut wisdom and the impacts of climate change.
Source: Michigan Live. August 2008.
by Johanna Eurich
Source: Kohanic Broadcast Corporation, KNBA 90.3FM. May 2012
Summary: Native elders have long-since understood and predicted climate change. Science is slowly catching up.
Summary: Scientists, Native elders and religious leaders including Larry Merculieff took part in a four-hour panel discussion on how to become better stewards of the Earth.
Source: JuneauEmpire.com. May 2011.
By Emily Russo Miller
Source: JuneauEmpire.com. February 2012
Summary: “What do Alaska Native elders, priests, secular humanists and scientists have in common? Apparently, climate change.” (From the article)
by Dan Joling
Summary: As science catches up with Native knowing and direct experience of climate change, Native voice is starting to be heard. Villagers speak some of their direct experience, including Ilarion Merculieff.
Source: JuneauEmpire.com. February 2006.
Summary: A diverse group of community leaders, including Ilarion Merculieff, from across Alaska came together for an interactive discussion calling for action on climate change. “One People, One Earth” included prominent arctic climate scientists, Alaska Native elders, and faith leaders from the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities. The panel drafted and signed a petition calling upon President Obama to “Act Now to Regulate Carbon Air Pollution because our lives and those of future generations depend on it.” (From the article.)
Source: Alaska Business Monthly. November 2011.
by Alex Notman
Summary: Climate change disproportionately affects Native and rural peoples. Alaska is warming two times as fast as the rest of the world. The solution is not only environmental, but human. We must reconcile the relationship between people and the environment. That process begins within.
Source: EugeneWeekly.com. May 2012 .
by Charlie Otto Rasmussen
Summary: Multi-part article describing the impacts of climate change on various Native communities throughout Native North America.
Source: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
by Larry Merculieff
Summary: Climate change is affecting Alaska and Siberia more than any other areas on the planet. Indigenous peoples who have sustained an intimate contact with their immediate environments for generations notice the subtlest of changes to flora and fauna and carry essential knowledge needed to understand both the impacts and potential solutions to climate change. Presented as part of a Western States speaking tour on Indigenous views of Climate Change, 2007.