We met MaryJane Litchard at a booth at the Rural Providers’ Conference in Nome last week. She was selling salves made from plants she gathers in the wild.
The conference is part of a grassroots sobriety movement that travels to a new community every two years.
At the gathering this year, there was a lot of interest in using traditional foods and plants to bring balance back into the lives of those trying to sober up.
MaryJane, an Inupiat, is quick to point out her people relied upon the healing powers of plants, long before there were doctors and village health clinics.
“This one is stinkweed and fireweed,” Litchard said as she pulled one of the jars out the stack, which she says helps to cure aches and pains. She also recommends another mixture of fireweed and wild celery for sore muscles.
“I picked valerian and lungwort, and also angelica from the beach. And it really works if you have a chest cold,” she says.
MaryJane recommends that you rub it on your feet, as well as your chest.
Aside from some plant lore, photographer Jacob Curtis and I wind up with an invitation to dinner and a chance to gather wild greens from the tundra outside of Nome.
How could we refuse?
On the menu, there was frozen sheefish from Kotzebue, to be eaten raw with seal oil.
She dug into a jar of pickled bowhead and beluga muktuk, with chunks of walrus meat. There was also a modern twist with jalapeno peppers in the pickle potpourri.
A big jar of salmon, preserved in salty brine, was also on the table — as well as a crispy, dark black jerky made from oogruk, or bearded seal meat. This was my favorite.
And last but not least, last year’s blueberries for desert.
We couldn’t help but look around. MaryJane’s house is filled with lots of interesting stuff.
“This is black lichen. It grows on the rocks,” she said, holding out a plastic freezer bag.
It’s what the caribou crunch on, but MaryJane uses it to make a purple dye.
She also has big jars with cottonwood buds soaking, which will eventually be used to make massage oils. She will let them steep for about six months.
We head out at about 9:00 p.m., but the arctic sun is still blazing.
She takes us to a hillside outside Nome, which she calls the “store outside her door.”
In a matter of minutes she points out spots where blueberries, blackberries and cranberries are growing. She also finds a patch of Labrador Tea.
We hike a short ways.
“Our ancestors used to hike for many, many miles,” MaryJane said.
Those were the days before alcohol abuse began to erode the traditional culture.
MaryJane says she’s heard stories about how entire villages were drunk on home brew, when they were first exposed to liquor.
The fallout has lasted for generations. Litchard believes she may be fetal alcohol- affected. Her mother told her that she drank during her pregnancy.
While on a binge, she abandoned MaryJane and her three brothers in a crib. She remembers being hungry and lying in filth for days.
MaryJane has her challenges, but says gathering wild foods is her therapy.
“I just love this wind. No mosquitos bothering you,” she says, as she tilts her face to the sun.
It’s close to 11:00 p.m., but the sun is still dazzling.
She says the plants are infused with energy from the long hours of sunlight.
“Our cells vibrate, happy that we’re eating the foods of our ancestors. It helps in the process of healing,” Litchard said.
She believes gathering plants for food and medicine might help a couple attempting to find sobriety.
“They would find interest in their culture, in preserving and collecting,” said Litchard.
We come across a cluster of willow bushes. MaryJane munches on the tender leaves as she drops them into a bag.
The leaves are slightly aromatic, slightly bitter. They will be mixed in with other salad greens.
For now, we share the table with a shaggy musk ox grazing nearby, dining with a view of Nome. An evening to remember.
Editor’s note: For more on the Rural Providers’ Conference, watch Frontiers. It airs twice on Sunday on KTVA and GCI Cable Channel 1 at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.