I wonder if we had what our ancestors had–that which allowed them to survive . . . ? Like the Jews, our ancestors had survived a holocaust. Like the African Americans, we had suffered enslavement. Like the Japanese Americans, we had suffered forced relocation during WWII. However, unlike the Japanese Americans, we had lost 10% of our people –infants and elders. My grandmother, Alexandra, died in that camp…Yet despite such challenges to the greatest of human spirits, our ancestors persisted. It is a testament to how remarkable my people are.
Very few people know about the Aleut people, or St. Paul – a tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea, with so much incredible biodiversity that it is sometimes called the “Galapagos of the North.” For thousands of years, the Aleut lived on these treeless, windswept islands in one of the harshest environments in the world. They thrived on the rich bounty of the sea, evidenced in their highly sophisticated boat building traditions (the prototype for modern sport kayaks) and advanced medicine (from embalming to successful brain surgery).
But in 1741, life as the Aleut people knew it was disrupted, when the Russians came to Alaska to establish a fur trade. They enslaved the Aleut, forcing them at the barrel of a gun to hunt sea otter from Alaska to California – a practice that brought the sea otters almost to extinction. After America “purchased” Alaska from the Russians in 1867, the US federal government forced the Aleut people of St. Paul to continue the slaughter of fur seals under slavery conditions: paid in food instead of money, and denied of freedom of movement, the Aleuts of St. Paul were forced to hunt fur seals for nearly 100 years. That’s right –you did the math correctly: this practice was not abolished until 1966!
Ilarion Merculief – St. Paul Aleut, elder, and visionary leader – tells the story of how the community came together to recover from this history in his book, “Wisdom Keeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People.” He describes their efforts to reestablish ancient wisdom, and to recover their homeland and self-pride, in the face of over 200 years of genocide.
You can purchase his book (I highly recommend it—it’s a page turner!) and get an author signature at 6:15 Friday night, October 21, at the REAL books store in the Exhibit Hall at the 2016 Bioneers Conference. Learn about how Merculief grew up to become a community leader, in the face of severe intergenerational trauma, and how he persevered for his people even after the roof of his house (literally) blew off.
The lessons passed on in this book are a true inspiration for anyone who cares about the environment, social justice, and the power of deep spirituality.
Merculief 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.
-North Atlantic Books
Come meet Ilarion Merculief at Bioneers 2016. In addition to his Friday evening book signing, he will be with us throughout the weekend, supporting the healing discussions at the Council Tent. You can hear Ilarion’s powerful words by attending Act Now, Before It’s Too Late: Messages from Indigenous Elders.