Frontiers 123: Alaska's Healing Plants
Some of the highlights from this week’s show:
- Dena’ina Tea Party. Highlights from the Plants as Medicine conference in Kenai.
- Traditional vs. Western Medicine. A conversation with Dr. Allison Kelliher, an Anchorage physician who incorporates her Athabascan heritage and healing plants into her practice.
- From Ginseng to Chaga. A visit with Dr. Hyun Sun Chung, who uses ancient Korean medicine to treat pain.
In mid-September, Frontiers was invited to what was billed as a Dena’ina tea party, a gathering of traditional Alaska Native healers in Kenai.
I had no idea what to expect at the “Plants as Food and Medicine Conference,” hosted by the Kenaitze Tribe. The event also had backing from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, The CIRI Foundation and the Alaska Humanities Forum. I was pleasantly surprised by the give and take between the participants.
The theme for the gathering was “Nudnelyahi Qudulyi,” Dena’ina for “That Which Grows Medicine.”
Staffers at the Dena’ina Wellness Center spent months gathering the ingredients for medicinal teas to be served at the conference. There were packets of blueberry tea, made from the stems and leaves of the plant – also wormwood and yarrow teas. One of the most popular was chaga, a fungus from the birch tree. Many healers at the gathering believe chaga helps to fight cancer.
As the conference-goers sipped tea, they shared stories and memories about how Alaska Natives practiced traditional medicine -- long before the advent of Western medicine, when survival depended on knowing how to use the wilderness as an outdoor pharmacy.
One woman talked about how spruce pitch was applied to an ax wound to prevent infection. Another healer talked about how a poultice made of wormwood saved infected fingers from amputation. One of the most amazing stories I heard -- how human hair was used to suture wounds because it would dissolve on its own during the healing process.
The two-day gathering encompassed many subjects – from protecting healing plants from exploitation to passing on knowledge to the younger generation. Healers also emphasized the spiritual practices that were a part of gathering healing plants.
For a little contrast and comparison, we also visited a Korean doctor, who uses acupuncture and herbs to treat pain at her Anchorage clinic -- a different perspective on plants as medicine, yet similar in many respects. She prescribes some of the same Alaskan plants that have been used for thousands of years in Asian medicine.
Our program hardly does the subject of traditional medicine justice, but we hope that a walk in the woods will never quite be the same again.