Excellence Reporter: Mr. Merculieff, what is the meaning of life?
Ilarion Merculieff: In my language, Unangan (Aleut), we greet each other every day with “aang waan”, hello my other self, so, aang waan.
In contemplating the meaning of life, I thought of our elderly and isolation. I was thinking about how this society makes the elderly invisible and alone, in an age of massive isolation. I have visited many so-called senior citizen homes where the elderly are expected to survive and thrive in their remaining years. What I see is very sad. At least half, if not more, of the people in these homes have lost the light in their eyes. It is not only sad, but a great waste.
One can see the contrast in Indigenous cultures. Indigenous peoples always do things in group settings, like potlucks, ceremonies and community gatherings. Everyone is acknowledged and engaged. The youth help the elders with whatever they need…carry the groceries for them, ask them if they need some water, help them walk somewhere, offer their hand when they need it, and sit around the campfires or stoves listening to the stories the elders tell. They take wild foods to them because they know the elders like and thrive on them. I was one of those youth who would go camping with the elders, throughout my formative years. I would listen to them tell story after story, over years. These stories were not only fascinating and/or funny, they contain wisdom for life and living. In telling these stories to the youth, the elders find meaning in life. They not only are appreciated and respected, but the elders know that these stories can help the young find meaning in their lives, thus the elder still feels useful and of service to others.
I think of the stories that elders in the senior centers have to tell, but there is no one interested or take the time to listen. The same holds true for the elders that are kept in one’s home with a family member turned into something akin to a prison guard or nurse. They are existing in a bad dream, and biding their time to die, in an age where the single-family household, not the extended family, is the model to aspire to.
I think that these elders are placed out of sight, out of mind, because many people do not want to be reminded of our own mortality. Getting old means being helpless, frail, sickly, and dependent on others. And this fear manifests as a great waste of humanity. The elders are people who loved and were loved, who survived to their age because of their courage and tenacity to live, who lived through thick and thin, and who have gained wisdom from their experiences. All our elders have meaning in life and respect. Without meaning, there is nothing to live for. You will be one of those elders one day, and only you can make a difference.
Life is about relationship. Relationship to self, first. Then, relationship to family, community, others in the community, the world, to all living things in this planet, to Mother Earth, the universe, and to your Higher Power. So, what is missing in todays world? I feel it is relationship to one’s heart. Today, we live in a reverse society, where the mind dictates to the heart. Traditionally, the heart used to tell the mind what to do and the mind would figure out how to do what it is told. Now, the mind tells the heart what to do…and so we have created a mess in the world, and we do not see our role in it.
We must find our meaning in life, and we can do it only from our hearts, and the heart is not logical or rational…it is trans-rational.
~Ilarion (Kuuyux) Merculieff – Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways (GCILL)
Ilarion Merculieff has over four decades of experience serving his people, the Unangan of the Pribilof Islands and other Indigenous peoples around the world in a number of capacities. His reach has been broad and varied—a few of the positions he’s held include: City Manager of St. Paul Island, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development, President and CEO of Tanadgusix Corporation, Chairman of the Board of The Aleut Corporation, Co-chair of the Japan-Alaska Fishery Cooperative, Chair of the Alaska State Bond Committee, Vice-chair of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Committee, and Deputy Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.
Merculieff is co-founder and former chairman of the Alaska Indigenous Council on Marine Mammals; former chairman of the Nature Conservancy, Alaska chapter; former co-director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, Alaska chapter; as well as co-founder of the International Bering Sea Forum, the Alaska Forum on the Environment, and the Alaska Oceans Network. Merculieff served on the National Research Council Committee on the Bering Sea Ecosystem and presented at numerous scientific conferences.
Merculieff’s life and teachings are featured in a chapter of a book titled: Native Men of Courage published by Second Story Press. He co-authored a book about traditional worldviews and cosmology entitled “Aleut Wisdom: Stories of an Aleut Messenger” that was released October 18, 2009 by French publisher Les Intouchables. His lifelong efforts on behalf of his people and the environment have been honored with the Buffet Finalist Award for Indigenous Leadership (2007); the Alaska Forum on the Environment Environmental Excellence Award for lifetime achievement (2007); the Rasmuson Foundation Award for Creative Nonfiction, 2006); the Alaska Native Writers on the Environment Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation (2004) and the Wisdom Fellowship Award given by The Sacred Fire Foundation (2017).
Merculieff recently published a book about wisdom he has learned locally, nationally, and internationally from Indigenous Elders and others from different cultures through the lens of his life experiences, titled Wisdomkeeper: One Man’s Journey to Honor the Untold History of the Unangan People, North Atlantic Books. He co-authored two books titled: Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues, 2016, University of Alaska Anchorage, and Perspectives on Indigenous Issues: Essays on Science, Spirituality, Partnerships, and the Power of Words, 2018, self-published. Both books are available on Amazon.
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