Wisdom Keeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People

Ilarion Merculieff, is an Aleut educator and has traveled the world working with indigenous people. He’s written a book called Wisdom Keeper, that’s available now, chronicling the stories of his people of the Pribilof Islands and messages from Native elders in Alaska and other countries. It also highlights the science and technology that his sea going people were adept at. Known more commonly as Larry, he says even his name, Ilarion, was part of  colonization and the imposed religion that Native people had to deal with.

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Wisdom Keeper: One Man's Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People by Ilarion Merculieff (Book cover photo courtesy of Amazon)
Wisdom Keeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People by Ilarion Merculieff (Book cover photo courtesy of Amazon)

MERCULIEFF: And so I’m named after St. Delario. He was Greek and they adopted in Russian Orthodox church.

TOWNSEND: The fact that you didn’t have a choice is kind of a key point that sort of also illustrates a lot of the history of your people.

MERCULIEFF: Yep that’s true. You were given a choice to join the church in which case, you’ll be treated like a civilized human being. Or you choose not to and then get treated badly. And so most people joined the church. And to join the church, you had to take a Russian name. That’s something that most people don’t know.

TOWNSEND: Your book has chapters dealing with slavery and genocide. Education both in the academic sense and in articulations about what instructions elders give. How did you decide how to map all of this out? It’s a lot of history. How did you go about that?

MERCULIEFF: I didn’t. I mean I just sat down and write and that’s the way it was. I just would write when I felt each day and didn’t have a road map at all. And that’s probably why it took me twenty years to do it.

TOWNSEND: The title Wisdom Keeper, I was curious about that. Wisdom’s value is in being shared. So how do you both stay clear about retaining the wisdom of the past, which is so important, but making those lessons relevant for younger people today and go about sharing it?

MERCULIEFF: Well I’m living the legacy of my name, my traditional name Kuuyux, which I was given by the last Kuuyux that was left alive at the time and I was 4 years old when he gave me that name and so we called each other Kuuyux. Kuuyux means a bridge or a messenger from ancient times into modern. And now I’m living the legacy of my name. So it’s quite interesting the way that, you know, I tell the story in the books about how this evolved for me. And so it’s really about the wisdom of the elders through the lens of my life.

TOWNSENDi: You wrote and just mentioned also that after 20 years of writing a lot of these stories that it was finally time to tell them. Why is now the time?

MERCULIEFF: Well, there are couple reasons that I wrote it. One is that my friends kept telling me “you’ve got to write these stories down.” And finally I decided to do that. The second thing is that I work with elders from all over the world and they are speaking with an urgency that I haven’t ever heard them talk. And they feel that they want their messages to get out and any way that we can. I mean, normally, we don’t single ourselves out. Like, writing a book, for example, with my picture on it and Wisdom Keeper. I mean, this title was picked up or made up by the publisher. It wasn’t what I had recommended. The urgency that they speak of is about this time that we have to change our consciousness. And that consciousness is mind centered as a center of intelligence when in a traditional view point in all indigenous peoples, it’s the entire makeup of the body that we use. We use all of our senses. We use our gut feel, our heart sense, intuition. All these things are operating but they’re stopped from being their full aspect of what they are because we’re so focused on the mind. And so the elders say that we must drop out of the head and go into the heart.

TOWNSEND: The Unangan people’s history is incredibly rich in a technological perspective that I think some people might find surprising. They are and have been for generations highly skilled sea going people and the builders of vessels for the sea. How did you write about that in your book?

MERCULIEFF: Well that’s very true. The kayak. The Smithsonian and London University were trying to figure out what’s the best high seas kayak in the world because they were funding an expedition that would go by kayak. And they discovered that, low and behold, Unangan had the best high seas kayak in the world. And we traveled to South America, the south Pacific, across to all parts of Russia and to point Barrow. These are things that even today anthropologists won’t acknowledge. That we have these stories about our people going very far south.

TOWNSEND: There’s also a lot of pain in the history. Your people working in slave conditions under the government in the fur business. They were interned during World War II. What do you want younger generations to know about this era and how it should instruct into the future without becoming overwhelmed by just the anger or sadness or bitterness of that era?

MERCULIEFF: Well, you know, we say like the Jewish people, we had our Holocaust at the hands of Russians where we lost eighty percent of our population in fifty years. And we’ve been out there for over 10,000 years and we’re still there. And like the Japanese-Americans, we were interned and unlike the Japanese-Americans we lost ten percent of our population. We were interned by the US government and we lost ten percent of our population due to starvation and disease, malnutrition and disease. And like the Black-Americans, we were enslaved. So we had all these things but the elders would say, “don’t have hatred or anger.” Because when you have that you not only destroy yourself, you contribute to the destruction of your people. And so I grew up without that anger and bitterness. And the demeanor and the actions and words of the elders are very true that if we – it’s like that saying where you pick up a hot rock and throw it at someone. What you do is you burn yourself. You don’t burn others.


Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-550-8452.

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