From Unalaska an island community with many original villages, Unangax artist Gertrude Svarny studied formally beginning in 1980 and soon connected her own style with our Unangan traditions using media and materials that are elements of Unangan life, subsistence and villages. Contemporary Mask Media: Wood, kittiwake feathers, ivory, whale baleen.
"I come from a truly amazing group of people who are
little known in the world."
(Larry Merculieff author, Wisdom Keeper)
As time marches on, memories and languages fade. There are untold stories within elders and families, buried in each genealogy. The preamble to The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) states "Corporations were established to provide for the economic and social needs, including the health, education and welfare of their native shareholders". What is meant by education is not discussed. The thrust of our education page is not within the purview of ANCSA or public education. Unangax education and oral learning are linked and serve as the thread for our continuing research.
What began as a report about education in my grandfather's time grew out of control and expanded to first contact and North American Tribes. Plans for writing, a manuscript are under way and I called many a time out to rethink this whole project. A publishing page on Facebook and The Aleut Elder web domain finally corralled our mission. Extensive searches for information brought me to the conclusion that due to the lack of substantive information about Unangax education to start with and native peoples education as a whole that education was delivered but not a big part of recorded history. At least what was delivered is not easily measured.
History speaks to education, history talks about education. Actual delivery of education outside of learning that was handed down was lacking. Due to heartbreaking events affecting Unangan almost being wiped out as indigenous people and as some researchers will attest to, there are gaps in written history and gaps in oral history that would have been passed on had the conduit of Unangan learning not been broken through tragic events. Anthropologists and historians have done a pretty good job of piecing things back together. There is definitely a connection between the sealing industry and quality of Unangax education in the Pribilofs.
With Unangan under the Russian American Company, much wasn't delivered beyond capital commitments and The Russo American Primer. Unangan learned Russsian/Slavonic at home and church. That was required of Unangan to get things accomplished and to get paid by overseers. At times this Russo American Primer is an ironic laugher akin to the 1930's and 1940's See Dick Run and See Jane Run stories. Live like this, work hard, don't drink, learn English and you too will be successful. In fact long term Unangan would not survive without english. From my manuscript: "About the time I left to complete High School most students had one foot in the Aleut world and one foot in the white world. Change was coming quickly. There was no turning back".
A hierarchy existed about well connected Russian administrators, their lineage and those technically considered Creoles. In order to limit the scope of my efforts I avoid the subject of Boarding schools and public schools outside of The Pribilof Islands as much has been written by qualified persons. I will touch on events I feel qualified to write about. thealeutelder.com will edit more recent stories from the 1940's to about 1970. I welcome submittals about education in the Aleutian Chain from early 1800's to 1955. I will share from time to time parts of my search as I make discoveries and build stories around old photos. I do this with the thought that snippets will be good for my great grandchildren, other children and also elders who enjoy these old snapshots in time. The Aleut Voice and thealeutelder.com thank Larry Merculieff from St. Paul Island. Larry captured in one sentence a simple description of who Unangan are and how we feel about our existence. Leo Merculief
Tribute to Father Paul Merculief-Archpriest
Father Paul was born January 28, 1939 and died April 12, 2013. We grew up together on St. George Island, Alaska, were evacuated to Funter Bay, AK in 1942, returned home in May 1944. We started first grade in 1945 and graduated from 8th grade in 1953 at the age of 14. Father was my closest friend. He was intelligent, humorous, caring and curious about the world beyond our village. At a young age we were constant companions applying our imagination to games and pranks, some alleged. Whether true or not, denying became a waste of time. We hunted together, fished and gathered Murre eggs, for which we were thoroughly admonished. Unangax boys were constantly being scolded for hanging around St. George cliffs but, growing up on the island, cliffs were in our blood.
We snuck out at wee hours of the morning to fish, hunt seabirds in early spring, and one late afternoon headed out for Paul's first Sea Lion kill on the East side at Sea Lion Rock with a disassembled rifle in our hip boots under long coats. Again, the permission thing. Uncles would scold and Grandpa "Deda" would just smile as he appreciated something fresh for the table. We sold ice cream before movies for cash and graduated to two large hand crank creamers. We hiked, camped, were scout leaders and night owls, studying late over many cups of tea.
Paul Merculief was born to be a priest. He spoke Unangax (Aleut) language fluently, studied Russian, read Slavonic effortlessly, always a student of Orthodoxy at a young age. Paul had endless conversations with his Grandpa George-Deda about Unangax culture and the church. I listened as I spent many hours in his kitchen. He always walked his grandfather to church on his arm as Deda aged. Paul set up his own small chapel in one of the family's out buildings in our early teens. What seemed like role playing to his siblings and me was not playing at all. Paul practiced services as we sang and did what we were told. Paul studied the canons of the church and all the different services. We would later joke that he was pretty bossy not realizing that he wanted services to be done correctly and respectfully. This was Paul's dress rehearsal for life.
I think about my grandfather Nicolai's preparation for the priesthood when he was sent by sailboat to the San Francisco seminary in 1889 at the age of 9. If Paul had the same opportunity in the 50's, I believe he would have been a candidate for the seminary at a young age. With years of hard work and dedication to the Orthodox Church, Paul first completed his High School credits in Seattle, later on to St. Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan PA, ordained in 1967, at 28 and to the priesthood on August 22, 1971. Fitting that August 22 is Matushka Elizabeth's birthday.
Father Paul and I maintained contact over the years discussing history and our culture. Father enlightened me about the Orthodox Church. We served together on The Aleut Corporation board. Our family Knew Father Paul intimately including his shopping habits and being careful to not fall for his "I need to make a trip to town for one stop, come on let's go for a ride" Just one stop Father? "I have to see this lady upstairs, she was going to order a book for me". And "while we're in this part of town". About five stores later, it seemed that everyone knew Father Paul.
Father Paul and later Archpriest Paul in 1983, was a man of his people, serving in many capacities in numerous native villages and the Alaska community. He was my best man in 1962. I can still hear Father Paul's voice getting my attention with "Liyunax"
Google Father Paul Merculief for a complete profile. Some of Father Paul's writings and interviews are available at The University of Alaska, Fairbanks