Leslie Hsu Oh Interviews Ilarion Merculieff

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In celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month, Leslie Hsu Oh interviewed Ilarion Merculieff, author of Wisdom Keeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People. Ilarion is Unangan (Aleut) of the Pribilof Islands. He’s served his people for four decades in roles such as City Manager of St. Paul Island and President and CEO of Tanadgusix Corporation, and he was the first Alaska Native commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development. He co-founded the Indigenous Peoples’ Council for Marine Mammals, the Alaska Forum on the Environment, the International Bering Sea Forum, and the Alaska Oceans Network. He currently serves as President of the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways (GCILL) and Senior Advisor to the World Wilderness Congress and Native Lands and Wilderness Council.

Wisdom Keeper was published in July 2016 by North Atlantic Books. Describe why you chose this publisher and how they’ve supported your book launch, distribution, and tour?

North Atlantic Books was recommended to me by a friend that published her work so I contacted them and sent my draft. They immediately responded saying that they wanted to publish my book. They provided an editor who didn’t edit very much except redundancies. They kept all the titles of the chapters I had chosen and didn’t change the words I used, which was surprising to me as most editors have recommendations for major edits. They have published the book in three forms, in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook, and they are available on Amazon. Since they are a non-profit, they did not do anything for the launch or tour. The book has consistently been in the top three hundred books Amazon sells, and has been in the top twenty in two out of three categories it is listed under.

In Wisdom Keeper, you write “None of the things I learned about being Unangan came from books, and there were no wrong answers, only better or different ones. I think this age-old wisdom, present in many Indigenous cultures, of the Unangan learning process helped me to think creatively and critically, something that has helped me immensely in my life and career.” What Unangan learning process might help writers?

To learn that there nothing is impossible if you are fully in your heart. The adults in the village always affirmed me and I was never scolded in the understanding that we are spirit beings taking human form. Scolding traumatizes the child because they have no defenses we adults have grown accustomed to in an imbalanced world. And trauma manifests in us in many different ways. One is to take rejection as a kind of scolding from the world and few escape that. If you are present in the moment, in your heart, it guides you perfectly, unlike the mind which takes us down a misguided path if it isn’t directed by one’s heart. There is no obstacle, only opportunities to learn.

During your writing process, after you wrote down your vulnerable moments of trauma and abuse and other difficult topics, did you ever struggle with deciding whether to publish it or not? Did you worry about how your family, community, or other Alaska Natives would react and how did they react after publication?

No, I never struggled with it. What I wrote was written in parts over time when I felt like writing, and I felt these stories needed to be told so that people who have had similar experiences would take it to heart that they are not alone, that others suffered similar experiences, and that we can overcome the traumas.

What are you currently working on?

I have come back from Kauai where I facilitated the WisdomWeavers of the World gathering where we brought spiritual Elders from around the world to pray, conduct ceremonies, and to discuss where the world is today and what we must be doing now as human beings. The gathering took place from November 1 through 4 of this year. These Elders feel that the human race is rushing headlong into global disaster, where everything we have depended on as conventional wisdom is not working anymore. The Elders feel that we must change our consciousness now. We humans have little time left. We must move from the head as the center of intelligence, to the heart, which is our place to connect with divine instructions. The daunting issues we face as a human race cannot be solved by logic and reasoning, it is trans-rational.

Now we are editing the 25 hours of film footage and thousands of still photographs we took for a message to the world, and a documentary. These messages will be subscripted into French, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, and Hungarian. I expect this work to take several months. In the meantime, we are going to put up a website for the WisdomWeavers in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Ilarion Merculief reads at the UAA Campus Bookstore launch of Wisdom Keeper


Leslie Hsu Oh (@lesliehsuoh) completed her MFA and taught for nearly a decade at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Essays, Alpinist, Backpacker Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Washington Post. She’s a White House Champion of Change: AAPI Storytelling and Art, a Schweitzer Fellow, and the Outdoor Editor for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.

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