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Karen Brooks, Part 1
Karen Brooks

Karen Brooks was interviewed on December 30, 2021 by her daughter, Jennifer Andrulli, in Soldotna, Alaska. In this first part of a four part interview, Karen talks about her family background and childhood, learning about traditional plant use, gathering and medicine, and combining traditional practices with modern medicine. She also talks about her personal connection to plants, her plant gathering and processing techniques, and medicinal uses for arnica and artemisia.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-31_PT.1

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Dec 30, 2021
Narrator(s): Karen Brooks
Interviewer(s): Jennifer "Jen" Andrulli
Transcriber: Stefanie Burich
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Ethnobotany Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Introduction and personal background

Learning about her Yup'ik heritage

First memories of experiences with plants

Living in Manley Hot Springs and learning to garden

Beginning to work with traditional plant medicine. and learning from an herbalist

Use and gathering of arnica for medicinal purposes

Preparing and using arnica oil

Spirit medicine and the use of artemisia

Using artemisia for muscle aches, colds, and upset stomachs

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Today is December 30th, 2021. I am Jennifer Andrulli, and I am here with my mom, Karen Brooks. We are in Soldotna, Alaska, the traditional lands of the Kenaitze Dena'ina Athabascan. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed today.

As you know, we will be talking about the various uses of plants. This, and other recordings regarding ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, and traditional healing, will be part of the oral history collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and will be placed online in an ethnobotany Project Jukebox hosted by the university.

Thank you so much for sharing today. Let's start with traditional introductions.

KAREN BROOKS: My name is Karen Brooks. I live in Manley Hot Springs. I'm a tribal member there.

My grandparents are the late Gwendolyn and Oscar Hagen from Groton, Vermont, the late Helen and Fred Miller from Takotna, Alaska. My parents are the late Rose and Al Hagen from Manley Hot Springs.

Oscar Hagen was Finnish, from the Baltic seaside. Until recently, my father thought he was Swedish. In researching my father's relatives, the Finnish people did not readily adopt being colonized, and the surrounding countries had fear and respect for their medicine people.

My grandmother, Helen Miller, was Yup'ik and her father was the village healer. When she was an infant, she was found in the family skin boat as the only surviving member of her family due to a possible rogue wave.

She then was given to the white missionary couple who also lived in the village. She was forbidden to eat, dress, or talk Yup'ik. Basically, she was raised as a slave.

She married Fred Miller, who was a half-breed; half Siberian Yup'ik and half German. My mother and her siblings were not taught much about their Yup'ik and Siberian Yup'ik background.

For my grandfather, being a half-breed, he was an outcast and took -- took this out on his wife and children.

My mother kept me and my brothers far away most of the time due to that abuse. And due to my father's work, we spent very little time with my mother's family.

I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I then moved to Vermont and lived on the family dairy farm until I was five-and-a-half.

My family, my mother and father, my three brothers and I, moved to Alaska, and I grew up not knowing I was Yup'ik.

I knew I was Native and didn't find out that I was Yup'ik and Siberian Yup'ik until I was in my 20's.

What I experienced as I grew up was -- you know, I wasn't Native enough. Or I wasn't white enough. I -- I felt, ahh, both sides, and it was very hard. Uhm, I decided that, you know, I'm interested in every way, because I was both.

I never really felt shame. I saw shame in my grandmother, when she came to visit, and I felt it in my mother, but I never really felt the shame of being part Native, part Yup'ik. Uhm, I never really felt that.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you for sharing your story, mom. And so, you started, in your 20's, asking questions about what tribe you belong to as an Alaska Native?

KAREN BROOKS: You -- you know, I grew up in a non-verbal family, so I don't think I thought of all the correct questions as a little kid.

When my grandmother would come and stay, she would sing Yup'ik songs. I don't recall asking her "What -- what language is that?" or anything. She just sang them and she had -- it was beautiful.

And my brothers and I, we'd asked her: "Do it again. Do that caribou song." Or "Do -- do the one where -- where she's brushing her hair out."

Uh, my grandmother, whenever she came, she'd line us all up and she'd (singing in her Native language).

And -- and it was really embarrassing as we grew up, because we were all standing just going up and down. But what she was really doing was singing her praise, that she was proud of us.

And I never felt that it was a bad thing. It was really kind of her way of -- of praising us. And --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Hmm, that's beautiful. What were your, uh, first memories playing with plants?

KAREN BROOKS: My first memory is riding on the sleigh in Vermont, collecting the maple sap that then was brought to the cook shed and bubbled. And, you know, cooked in this big vat until it was boiling.

And then I remembered them pouring this bubbly mixture over snow. And all the kids were -- you know, it was just amazing. The -- the maple sugar snow stuff. That was my first plant memory.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And then how old were you when you moved to Alaska? KAREN BROOKS: Five and a half.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And what was your first memory with Alaska plants?

KAREN BROOKS: My first memory with Alaskan plants was fireweed. And playing with the long stems of the seeds before they went and pushed out the white fluff.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Was the fireweed sweet?

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, it was. You know, we would eat the flowers. You know, we ate -- we would play outside all the time. And we would make forts and we would ahh, -- you know, we had great imaginations, and so we used a lot of the plants. Um, sort of replicating, uh, what we saw in our families, you know.

We'd use the stems as -- as possible cigarettes, you know. And, and, um, we would -- you know, the whole thing around butter.

We would pick dandelion flowers and put it under each other's chin and say, "Oh, you like butter." You know, like every kid. I think every kid did that.

Um, and I remember gathering flowers for my mother and my grandmother, whatever was in bloom.

And I remember picking berries. Uh, all kinds of berries. Uh, the cranberries and -- in Interior, because we move --

When we first moved to Alaska, we lived in Takotna, and we lived there for a year. I don't think we were there for berry picking season, because we then moved to Prince William Sound.

And in Interior, they don't have salmonberries. But in Cordova they had lots of sal -- salmonberries. So, we would go salmonberry picking every year. Every year we would just pick buckets.

And I didn't realize that in South Central, there's a lot of bears -- Because we were taught to make lots of noise in the woods, and I remember a lot of times seeing fresh bear poop with steam coming out of it, and never felt fear, never once, because we made lots of noise when we were in the woods all the time.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, you played and had a fun childhood in Vermont, Takotna, and Cordova? KAREN BROOKS: Correct.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And then you -- you -- in your 20s' you had moved to where? Where did you move?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, when I was 13 or 14, I moved -- we moved to Anchorage. I went to high school in Anchorage and then I got married and lived in -- well, you were born in Anchorage.

We were living in Houston, between Wasilla and Willow. And when you were a month old, we then went to Interior to Manley Hot Springs. Ah, we --

This was during the pipeline, and your father was working as a medic on the pipeline, and my parents wanted to go on vacation and wanted me to watch my youngest brother.

And that's how we got to Manley Hot Springs. My parents were living there. And then we ended up building a cabin there. And we lived there first 'til the '80s. 1980.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And it's in Manley Hot Springs where you learned to garden. KAREN BROOKS: Yes.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Tell me that story.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, there was a man called Albert George. He was from Oregon. He looked like a hobbit. He walked around with snow on the ground in bare feet. He had hair on his feet, too. And he had a really long beard.

And he was just, I mean, amazing. He -- he had -- everywhere he went, he planted seeds. And I followed him around for a couple of years.

And I ended up buying all his equipment, because he was retiring and going back to Oregon. He was in his 70's.

But he really was the one who taught me how to grow vegetables and got me excited about growing things.

Even though as a child, both in Cordova and in Vermont, I always had an interest in plants. I would always watch. You know, I was -- I'm an observer.

So, I would watch my grandmothers, both in Alaska and Vermont, gather plants and cook plants because they were both excellent cooks.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, in the '80s, you moved to Fairbanks. You managed and continued to garden there. And this is when you were in your 20's and you started to expand your understanding about plant medicine.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, your father in Manley was the health aide there, and I was the alternate health aide, and I really thought I wanted to be a medical doctor.

But, in my training, I decided that, you know, I'm more drawn to natural medicine because I -- At that point, I was picking rose hips. I was drying them, making rose hip tea. I was learning Chinese medicine. I was drinking, um, tea with, you know, different Chinese herbs. I had herbal books.

I -- you know, listened again, asked questions about what were remedies for this and that. And that's when I got into natural medicine was at that point. And then, when I moved to --

When we moved to Fairbanks I -- I was -- I ran a community garden there for a couple of years as I did in Manley. I just loved growing things and harvesting. I -- I canned. I started preserving a lot of, ah, vegetables when we moved into Fairbanks.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, you started asking these questions about natural medicine? KAREN BROOKS: Right.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You had -- you had living teachers, elders, and then you had books and -- and then in Fairbanks you met an herbalist.

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. A real herbalist, you know. I just toyed with plants. There was just a few plants that I knew that --

Yarrow, uh, pineapple weed. Oh gosh, you know, there was a few other -- Uh, rose hips, raspberry leaf.

Um, and then I met Debra, who actually was a full, rounded herbalist, and I became really good friends with her and helped her in making her remedies. And I learned much from her.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: What a wonderful friend to have, and mentor and guide. And with her friendship you then developed your own remedies, plants that worked really well for you in your work? KAREN BROOKS: Correct.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, we'll talk a little bit about, uh -- One of the first plants that you started working with was arnica.

KAREN BROOKS: Was arnica, right. Well, as a therapist and working on people's bodies, I would talk about arnica.

And this was in the '80s, mid to late '80s. And I would say to people, "Just, you know, go to the health food store and buy arnica and that's really great for muscle pain." And no one would.

And so, I decided I would start picking it and make arnica oil. And that's when I started process -- picking and processing arnica. And I gave away the oil to my patients.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's wonderful. Where does arnica grow?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, arnica is the first -- I call it the first flower that comes out. It kind of looks like a daisy and it grows in dry, uh, gravelly -- like on the sides of the roads, um, in -- in dry, gravelly dirt.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And what part of the arnica do you pick?

KAREN BROOKS: The flowers. I pick the flowers. And this, you know, it (laughing) -- for years and years, it was always the end of the first week in June. I would go down -- I'd drive from Fairbanks down to Healy, and there would be arnica aaall the way down.

And then it changed. And then it -- you know, with global warming it -- I think one year it was blooming -- I got a call from -- from my daughter, Erin, up in Fairbanks, "Hey, mom, the -- the arnica is blooming."

Because I had all you -- the girls, you know, I'd get a couple of cases. And I'd bring the jars and the oil. I'd use um, uh, olive oil, and I'd have it all ready.

And so to get this done fast, I would tell you girls, "Okay, you fill one of these quart jars, each one of you, and then we'll go swimming." (laughing) It worked pretty good, 'cause I -- it didn't take long for -- for me to get a case.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, you pick the flowers, put 'em in a jar. And then you cover 'em with olive oil?

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. I was always paying attention to the weather, too. Now, Interior is really hot and dry. And it does, you know -- there's, ahh, thunder showers and rain intermittent.

And so, late afternoon, you always -- and this is, I -- you know, a lot of the things you learn as you go. And when there's a lot of moisture, there's a big possibility for mold and mildew to grow.

I learned to watch the weather. And even if it rained, if it was windy, a couple of hours later the plant would be dried out. And that's really the best time.

There were times that like two o'clock in the morning. It's so light and it's so warm up there, that that was a good time for me to pick. Plus, there wasn't much traffic.

And, uh, now, if I miss the growing in, like, let's say Healy, you can just head north, because the farther north, the later the plants are because the cold. You know, because of -- that's just the way it is.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Also in elevation, so -- KAREN BROOKS: Right.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: When you're harvesting along the roadway, you walk off the road, 20, 25 feet or so and there's arnica off along the roadways and on the gravel roads off the main road. Get off and away from the road where there might be contamination?

KAREN BROOKS: Right. Exactly. And --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So what do you do with this arnica oil? Is -- do -- how do you use it?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I -- I sun-infuse the arnica oil. I put it out after --

Okay, I'll start at the beginning. You know, after the -- the plant and the oil are in the jar, you know, I shake it up. If the jars need to be topped off, I top 'em all off with oil, and then I place them in the sun.

I keep them -- I keep them from getting wet. I -- you know, I have a roof -- under the roof, but I keep them in the warmest part of the house or under the eaves where the rain won't get to it.

I put cheesecloth over the top. Then I screw the lid on. So, the moisture that is left in the plant can dissipate out through the oil.

I leave it there for -- 'til fall. And then I press the plants, press all the medicine out of the plants. Either you can put it in a cheesecloth bag and just squeeze it manually with your hands, or you can use a press and a mallet.

And then -- I don't really strain it, because I think the little crumbs in it are just medicine. They are meant to be in there.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And then you bottle it, label it?

KAREN BROOKS: And keep it in a cool, dark place.

What it's used for is on -- is topically on the body. This is not used internally at all.

In fact, internally can be quite dangerous, and I have made tincture, but, um, that's only for doctors and of natural medicine.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Tinctures can also be used topically?

KAREN BROOKS: It can be used topically.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Like a liniment?

KAREN BROOKS: Like a liniment. You know, there's many things you can do with one plant.

In herbalism, you know, is one plant can -- depending on what's going on, and depending on what part of the plant, and how you prepare the plant, can be used for many things.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: This brings up a -- a wonderful point. And so, uh, there's many forms of ethnomedicine. Plant medicine is one spoke of ethnomedicine.

And what you do in your work is you blend body work, healing hands, plant medicine, together to provide care for patients.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, that's true. And I also use spirit medicine, you know, the spirit of the plant, the spirit of the land.

I then started picking artemisia because that's Alaskan sage, and it's so pungent, and it's such a powerful medicine.

I learned from the Elders -- they call it an Interior stinkweed. In fact, they still use it. Everyone knows what stinkweed is. And around the same time, I started picking arnica, I started picking artemisia.

And that -- you know, and I, you know -- wherever I'm picking, I always create a name or an image in my head about what that plant is doing.

And artemisia holds up the riverbanks, because I would pick it off the Tanana River. And it also grows in really dry, um, banks on this south side. And it holds all that dirt and rocks there so they don't fall into the river.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You -- there's about four different types of artemisia that grow in Alaska, and you're picking Artemisia frigida on the riverbanks. KAREN BROOKS: Right.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And this is spirit medicine. It's used in many ways, like you said about arnica. This particular plant is used internally, externally for different illnesses, but also the spirit medicine.

Do you want to talk a little bit about arnica or artemisia and spirit medicine?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I started picking it and making smudge sticks. And smudge sticks are used to clear the air, to get rid of negative energy.

And then, there was a time when I picked up my friend Debra, the herbalist, and brought her down to the herbal conference in Cooper Landing, and I had hurt my back severely.

And in my reading of artemisia, I found that, you know, yes, it can be used for many things and is used for sore backs and bruises.

The indigenous people, when they would sweat, they would use the succulent artemisia, the forest artemisia, and they would switch. You know, they'd hit the backs while they were in -- in sweat lodges. Uh, it helps sore muscles.

I was driving, uh, Debra down to Cooper Landing, and oh, it was a bad -- I felt it rip in my lower back. I stopped. I said "I gotta stop and pick some artemisia."

When you pick a pile of artemisia, and you let it sit, and you -- a couple of hours later put your hand in the middle of that pile of artemisia, it is hot. It was -- I mean it has -- it's very high in nitrogen.

So, I picked a great, big bundle and I stuffed it up my shirt and down my pants and sat. And my back was warm. It was like having a heating pad all the way down.

I think that probably saved me, even though the injury was severe. Um, it probably helped me not be more hurt, I think, by having that on that long drive. I could barely walk. But it helped me the whole weekend.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, these are two plants that are helpful for muscle aches and pains.

And you tend to make your oil separately. You'll make an arnica oil, you'll make a artemisia oil. And after those have been created, you would blend them together at that point.

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, sometimes I would blend them, sometimes not.

Um, you know, I started it be -- making these oils because people wouldn't buy 'em and -- and so I just really love doing it. I'm going out -- and harvesting plants is very wonderful.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Now, um, can you talk a little bit about the use of small amounts of artemisia internally for parasites and gut health?

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, yes. Um, you can make a tea, and it's good for colds. It's good for parasites. It's good for coughs. It's good for upset stomachs.

I think, it's -- again, you ask the plant. You know, ask the plant what --

I learned this from Debra. One plant has many, many applications. And when you're looking at one particular ailment, you would maybe prepare it a different way, and you would give it in different sequences depending on what it -- what's going on in the body.