Ilarion Merculieff has just released a new book about growing up on St. Paul island in the Pribilofs. Wisdom Keeper is part memoir, part meditation, and part call-to-action, as Merculieff weaves together stories from his traditional upbringing with teachings from the indigenous elders that have guided his life and work.
“I come from a truly amazing group of people who are little-known in the world,” he writes. “My people, the Unungan, have survived and thrived along the remote Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea shorelines for more than ten thousand years.”
Merculieff said he was inspired by the elders to finally publish his story. “Normally, we Unungan and Alaskan native peoples don’t do things that single [ourselves] out,” he said, “but the elders have asked me if I would get their messages out, and that’s what inspired me to do the book, which took me over 20 years to write.”
Merculieff now travels the world, giving presentations on the elder wisdom he has gathered. He works with organizations like the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways and the International Bering Sea Forum. It seems that this is a mission he’s been preparing for nearly his entire life. He described being given a traditional name as a young child which meant “an arm extending out from the body,” or “a messenger from the ancient to the modern.” Merculieff said that though he didn’t realize it at the time, he’s now living the legacy of this name.
Merculieff grew up during the last years that the American government occupied Saint Paul. He witnessed firsthand the hardship the Unungan people have endured and its lasting effects on Native communities. He said, “we come from a legacy of real trauma, and this trauma to the spirit caused us to get into addictive behaviors, violence and all these kinds of things, suicide, and that’s just a legacy from the past that we don’t any longer need to live.”
In Wisdom Keeper, Merculieff stresses a focus on the present as one particular teaching that he says helps with healing. “It’s only in the present moment that we can find the solution to whatever the issues are that are daunting us in the world,” he said.
This lesson came early on for Merculieff, who remembers watching the thousands of sea birds that live in the Pribilofs at six years old. “I noticed that none of the birds even clipped a wing,” he recalled, “and I wondered in my six-year-old mind, how did they do that? And what I realized was that they didn’t think, they weren’t worried about the past or the future.”
Merculieff says focusing on the present allows for change within a person and within the world. Another lesson from elders he describes says that nothing is created outside before it is first created inside. And for Merculieff, bringing these teachings back to the fore is especially vital for indigenous communities.
He said, “the elders that I worked with in Alaska don’t believe that we can survive through these times unless we have this change back to what we are as real human beings in the present moment and in the heart. And they asked me to stop trying to save the Bering Sea… work instead to prepare young people for what's coming, because what they see coming is going to be very hard.”
Merculieff believes that progress has already been made, saying that, “there are people… especially the young ones, that are picking up that they don’t need to live this legacy of spiritual trauma that’s been passed along from generation to generation.”
Still, Merculieff says a big change like this one won’t come from government or environmental conservation, but instead is “absolutely with the people. The elders say that the indigenous peoples are going to be sought after for the solutions to this coming time. And it’s starting to happen, albeit slowly, that formerly invisible voices are now becoming visible.”
Wisdom Keeper is available now at online booksellers.