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Karen Brooks, Part 3
Karen Brooks

This is the continuation of an interview with Karen Brooks by her daughter, Jennifer Andrulli, in Soldotna, Alaska. This session occurred on December 31, 2021. In this third part of a four part interview, Karen continues to talk about her work as a traditional healer who combines traditional Native plant medicine with western medicine. She discusses the importance of traditional medicine and proper plant identification, her personal journey of healing coming from a family greatly effected by cultural upheaval and suppression, and how Yup'ik drumming provided her connection to ancestors, traditional spiritualism, and understanding of plants. Karen also talks about sovereignty, self-determination, and Native leadership.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-31_PT.3

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Dec 31, 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.


Benefits of living off the land

Journey of wellness through traditional medicine and healing practices

Effect of her healing journey on her children's cultural understanding

Importance of traditional medicine for future generations, and developing a relationship with plants

Historical trauma and the voiceless generation

How to carefully ask about traditional knowledge

Traditional religion

Developing her own spiritual nature, and drumming to connect with the spirit world and the past

Cultural revitalization in the 1970s and 1980s

Native leadership and governance

Self-determination in the health care system

Balancing natural medicine with western medicine, and the importance of movement as medicine

Importance of proper plant identification

Reclaiming cultural knowledge and sovereignty

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


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Today is December 31st, 2021. I am Jennifer Andrulli, and I am here with my mom, Karen Brooks. We are in Soldotna, on the traditional lands of the Kenaitze, and this is a continued conversation with Karen Brooks.

Thank you for sharing the challenges of our family. Alaska Natives and all indigenous people are working through to reclaim individual indigenous sovereignty.

Our family defines this as the individual journey we each take for healing, understanding, and anchoring the remembering of who we are and what our purpose in life is. Our individual work transforms our family clan and community.

How has natural medicine, plant medicine, and learning to practice traditional healing helped you heal?

KAREN BROOKS: You know, it was when I was training to be a health aide and I was also, at the same time, very interested in herbal medicine and -- and being in nature.

I moved to the bush with your father, and we built a cabin, and we had no running water, no electricity and going into town -- for my training into Fairbanks or Anchorage, what I noticed was the smell, the smell of the vehicles.

And I -- I really loved going back home and being in nature and it was quiet. It was peaceful. It was clean. It -- it didn't smell. There was no preservatives in the foods that I grew.

There was, uh -- it was very healthy. It -- and -- and you had to work for it. And it was very simple. It was a very simple -- although hard.

You know, I was busy all day long, living off the land. And it's -- it was satisfying.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: They -- they use the word subsistence to describe our living off the land. Would -- would you use the word sustenance?

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, I would. I would use that. I wasn't subsisting. I was there because I wanted to.

I wasn't -- it was a place I chose to be, not a place that I was just surviving.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: With that deep nutritional quality of the foods that you grew, harvested, and the hunting and fishing, the food was sustained --

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, the foo -- JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- deeply. KAREN BROOKS: It was. And it was -- you know, it was honored you -- you went out and you worked for your food.

And the gift was -- was having this wonderful meal that you grew, uh, yourself, or you hunted yourself.

One year, I snared rabbits and that's all we ate because we were, uh, not, uh, very wealthy. You know, we didn't have a lot of money for a lot of food. And so, I decided I would snare rabbits and we ate rabbits.

The -- I felt proud that I could go out and I could get the meat for our family.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Your journey into learning Western medicine through the health aide program, and your study of herbalism, your time with the Elders, your practice of asking Elders who knew your grandmother, that was part of the journey of wellness.

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And a journey of healing for you.

KAREN BROOKS: I wanted to know why my -- inside my blood it just -- I resonated with the Yup'ik dancers. You know, why is that? It's in my blood.

I wasn't raised in the village. I wasn't raised with my relatives, my Yup'ik relatives, but I felt it in my blood. I felt it in my heart.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And through your work, drumming, learning to drum, being the drum beat, journeying with the plants and animals of Alaska, of the region that you were living, that was a path in a journey of healing.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, yeah, it was accepting who I was because I never fit in.

As I grew up, I didn't feel a part of -- of one group or another. I was sort of excluded.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: How has your personal journey impacted your children and their healing and understanding?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I think from my upbringing, I saw the white elephants dancing on the coffee table, dancing on the kitchen table. I saw that they -- my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and uncles, they didn't talk about it. They numbed themselves, uh, with alcohol.

And I knew -- I -- there was shame. I felt it. I couldn't name it for a long time. I didn't understand why they didn't talk about it.

So, I talked about it. I talked to my children about life and where they came from, and -- and some of it was very uncomfortable, because it was very, uh -- I didn't keep it hidden. It wasn't that thing you didn't talk about.

I -- I never had my mother around when she was drinking, because I didn't want my children exposed to that life. I didn't think it was healthy to numb yourself. I thought that talking about it was a part of the healing.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. Can you share the importance of traditional medicine for future generations?

KAREN BROOKS: Everything that we need for food and for healing grows around us. And I think that if we all developed a relationship with the plants around us, there would be less pollution, less waste, there would be more research, there would be more knowing.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Humans are hard-wired for story. We learn from other's experiences, the stories of the past and the present. Thank you for sharing.

So, you touched on the historical trauma in our family. Your grandmother, Helen Joe, was an orphan given to white missionaries to raise. She was enslaved into marriage, unable to participate in her culture openly.

Your mother Rose Hagen's birth certificate described her father as a half-breed Siberian Yup'ik and her mother as a full-breed.

This is colonial construct representing Victorian ideas of race and the express political objective to erase native populations.

Can you share your story, our family's story on the voiceless generation?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, again, they didn't talk about it. My grandmother and mother, they never talked about things that were from the past. What I felt was -- I felt their shame.

Now, I didn't feel my personal shame at all. I wasn't brought up that way. But I felt theirs.

When my grandmother would come to visit, my mother and her were in hushed voices, would -- would be so happy to see each other. And I think that's what helped them through the pain, the trauma, the brutal abuse that happened to both my mother and my grandmother, that they just had themselves to -- to help them with that trauma.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And today, we have Elders who are still part of this voiceless generation and they retain sacred knowledge, secret knowledge within.

What's your advice of gently asking the questions to, uh -- around plants, around traditions, to help us retain that cultural knowledge?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I would be careful with my words. That -- words that will not trigger the shame.

I think that's a big issue with, uh, Alaska Natives is the shame that they hold. Be it their own shame or the shame that was put on them from their parents.

I -- when I was little, I think eight years old, I -- for some reason my grandmother, she had come to visit and she leaned over and she opened her mouth. And inside her mouth, she had tattoos.

Now, I didn't understand the significance of what that meant until, gosh, when I found out I was Yup'ik, and the Yup'ik women would tattoo their face.

And part of it would be to be recognized from a distance. And it also symbolized the pain, um, that they beared.

And I think, in her silence, and in her showing me that she still was Yup'ik, and she was still in a place of pride that -- that she had to tattoo the inside of her mouth, and that's what kept her being who she was. And she was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest woman I've ever known.

ENNIFER ANDRULLI: Tattoos as rite of passage?


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Tattoos -- even experiencing the great assimilation and oppression of colonization, she went through the rite of passage to have her tattoos?


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: How powerful. And so, the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 protects the rights of Alaska Natives and Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions.

This ensures access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies, traditional rites.

In Alaska, Iñuit and Yup'ik drumming and dancing was banned by Christian missionaries in the late 19th century, as dangerous and primitive.

You were -- you were very young when Alaska was a territory. You were born when Alaska was still a territory, and then you moved back and it had just become a state.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And you experienced these -- the suppression within your own family of feelings of sharing their story.

What did you notice in Alaska after the passage of this act?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I really didn't notice a lot. You know, my -- my mother's family were just -- lived just like my father's family.

Uh, there was no practicing religious anything. Uh, at all, I noticed. Uh, there was no talk about it.

There -- although my grandmother, she would, uh -- she would be very sad when she got a little bit, um, inebriated, you know.

And she -- you know, there was drinking. Drinking was a part of socializing. And when she got a little bit -- you know, had too many Olympia beers -- which she liked her beer.

She would cry and -- and -- and call out to Jesus Christ, her Savior, and ask for her husband who passed -- my grandfather -- who abused her, and I thought, "Oh, that's just horrible." And I thought that when I was a child, how can one ask God for abuse? I -- I didn't understand that.

And in my spiritual journey, because we didn't go to church, I went to whoever was my best friend's church.

So I've been to Presbyterian, Met -- uh, Methodist, Catholic. Uh, oh gosh, many more churches just because I was curious.

And they had to go to church on Sunday. And I -- I didn't understand that. I never went to church. I was never made to go to church. So, my study in religion was vast.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You studied Western religions, Eastern religions. You sought out the essence of religion, you studied it -- our indigenous traditional ways of animism.

And the interconnection between human beings and plants and animals.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Minerals and all living things.


ENNIFER ANDRULLI: And developed your spiritual nature?

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, I did. Because in Western religion, they really feared those and -- and shamed those who -- who did think there was spirits in rocks and plants and animals.

I -- I could sense that, because if I began to go there, as a teenager, I would be shut down.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, as an adult, you had the freedom to explore. You picked up the drum, and you used the drum to communicate with plants.

KAREN BROOKS: I did, and in drumming, I had a journey. And I went way back in time, and I was inside a village gathering hut, which was held up by whale bones and covered in skins.

And the women who danced, they would stand in one place. And the reason why was because they would let the men do their dancing about the hut, because they're the ones that brought in the meat.

And that -- that was an answer to my question, why do the men, uh, get to dance and express their feelings when the women just have to stand there in one place. It was really about honoring.

It wasn't because they were less than men. It was because they were honoring the man and giving him the opportunity to tell his hunting story, and have the space in which to do so.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. And so, this is a -- a way of answering the questions that we have. When we may not have an Elder present.

We can ask through the technique of drumming, we can ask the plants, we can ask our ancestors, we can ask our bloodline, our genealogy. We can ask the universe for these questions that we hold in our heart.

KAREN BROOKS: We can. And it's unfortunate that in this culture today, our Elders, our grandparents, do not live with the families.

And there was a reason why. Our Elders hold a lot of wisdom. And they have a lot of patience with children. And I think, uh, that's what's missing in -- in our culture.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: We started this recent conversation around the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And for me -- I was born in 1974. And moving into Fairbanks in 1981, there was so many cultural experiences to participate in -- the festival of Alaska Native Art --

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- started in the early 1970s. And that is when there were c -- community celebrations of music and dance.

The, um -- there was the World Indian and Eskimo Olympics that started -- KAREN BROOKS: Oh, yes. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- in the 1970s. And we got to go every year.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, we did.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And I was surrounded by Alaska Native students. We had a gathering at school. Every year, we would gather four times a year. We knew each other. We met each other. We did cultural things together.

And then, it was in the 1980s that the Camai Dance Festival started in -- in Bethel, after almost 100 years of banned Yup'ik drumming and dancing.

KAREN BROOKS: See, you had something more special than I did, because we didn't -- I didn't experience that at all, um, growing up.

There was no dancing, there was no talking in their language. There was no sharing, um, or gatherings of -- of Alaska Native people. It -- it just never happened.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Right. And so, then we're celebrating -- you know, we say we're celebrating 50 years of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. And so, that's when Alaska Federation of Natives was developed. And we started these gatherings.

It was through that gathering of Natives from all over the state that I think eventually has led to the healing circles that are occurring, where the Elders of the boarding school era are talking about the abuse and neglect.

KAREN BROOKS: And that's the beginning of healing, is naming it. I -- I feel that -- you know, I started going to the Alas -- AFN every year, and they -- it was modeled after how, you know, this country is ran, you know, with presidents and vice presidents. And now, there's chiefs, and second chiefs.

Well, that -- that may sound all wonderful and honoring their lineage, but they still haven't really, uh, learned how to do it in the way they did it in the past, which is really very different than what is today's way of -- of leading or teaching, or showing people how to live like a human being.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. And well said that, uh, we've went through such great transformation and change in the last 100 years, literally, since the, uh, Great Death and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, to running multi-national corporations.

And so, the balance of tribal administration, corporate administration, and leadership from a business perspective, and then the rise of spiritual leadership.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Where our corporate leadership is in -- has maybe some guidance in -- in -- in the spirit, a sense of spiritual leadership, which is collaborative cooperation, transparency, honesty, and integrity.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, yeah, I think in -- you know, it's both a really big gift and a really big challenge, because -- because of how it's set up, right now. It's sep -- it's been separated.

So, we have to find our way back home. We have to find our way back to right action, with the education that we were given.

That's a very powerful place, because each one of us has the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, and serve their people. That is a part of the trauma. And it's about letting that go.

That was meant to happen, or else it wouldn't have happened. So, let's get on with life. Let's take that and look at the gifts of what it gave us.

There's nothing we can do to change the past, what we can do is change our attitude, and move forward and allow ourselves to be in a better place.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. And it's really about embracing the terms that are being used right now as, uh, sovereignty, self-determination, and decolonization.

And you're saying, we're working on this, it's important to embrace it, internalize it, be sovereign now, express from a place of -- of individualized self-determination, which is --

This idea of cause and effect right now, choices and outcomes right now, from this moment forward.

KAREN BROOKS: Well -- JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Being self-determined.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, it's about taking our power back, not in a power monger way. It's, for instance, when we go to the doctor, aha, we have given our power away, we are not educated, we're not, you know, we -- we don't question -- I, uh -- what they're doing.

I questioned what was -- what was happening to me. I am responsible for my well being and everyone should feel the same way.

We'd have a better health care system if we invested in ourselves and took our power away, back.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Yeah, that's so important is -- you know, we are our own best advocate when we're working within and seeking assistance from the Western medical system.

And then, if we don't have the knowledge, that we ask for a advocate to help us navigate the Western system. There are language barriers.

There are, um, some, you know, fear and trauma that comes up even just going into the hospital because of the trauma from the early dentists and doctors and, uh, the genocide of, um, you know, blankets that were given to us. So, there's this underlying fear of doctors.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, there -- there is. And I worked in a couple of clinics as a tribal doctor.

And what I got from the people I saw is they wanted -- they wanted me back. And -- and I said, "Go to your -- go to your council."

'Cause it's about listening, really listening to the people and it -- and it's about education in a way that is not about money, or about pharmaceuticals, or about -- it's about how you live.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: The balance between, uh, working with natural medicine, in balance to the pharmaceuticals that people need to maintain their blood pressure, or the chronic diseases.

And so, what I'm hearing you say is that there are pharmaceuticals that treat chronic conditions that can also be treated under some dietary changes, some lifestyle changes, like exercises.

So, there are some things that we can individually do to reduce high blood pressure, to reduce blood sugar issues. And so --

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, I agree. Western medicine can work in conjunction with holistic medicine, with natural medicine. And they can work well together.

I have worked well with -- with doctors, and it's about education. It's about honoring each other. It's getting rid of the -- the money factor. This -- this culture is all about the money.

And when you think about it, you know, even in Indian health care, it's all about the money. Still, the bottom line is how much money do we invest in each person? Well, it should be unlimited, because that's what we were given when the treaty was signed.

But that's not really what's happening. You know, you talk about wellness. Um, it's slowly happening. I see yoga now in different clinics. I see herb walks. I see things like that. And yes, it is moving forward. But not fast enough. It can be faster, I do believe.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, yoga is traditional medicine of India. And it's a beautiful movement medicine.

And like our own dancing and drumming is movement medicine, the gathering of plants and being on the land with intention, uh, to explore what nature is offering, is movement medicine.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, yes. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And that's beautiful, and powerful to weave in our practices of traditional healing and every opportunity that we have to be on the land.

KAREN BROOKS: And we used to do that when we lived in the village. I like living in Manley, because I have to go out and haul my wood. I go and haul my water. That helps my body be stronger.

We used to do things like that all the time. I mean, I -- talking to an Elder they would decide, "Oh, we're gonna go walk to Rampart, just for a dance."

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And now, for those who are in the cities and are urban, every opportunity that you find yourself in nature is an opportunity to drop in to presence, drop in to the moment and -- and see what nature has to offer.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And there's beautiful books that are available. We really liked this little pocket guide that Janice Schofield wrote that has 25 easily identifiable plants, how they're used as food and medicine.

It's important to identify plants correctly, because here in Alaska, we have some of the most poisonous plants on the planet.

KAREN BROOKS: That's correct.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That look like other edible plants. So, identification is vital.

And, uh, and that kind of comes back to that question of, um, you know, the importance of traditional medicine for future generations.

And the knowledge is there. There are many recordings, there's many books now produced by regional corporations on plants.

And what you'll see as we talk with Elders about plants, they have similarities of uses, and then they have differences of uses.

And there's that honoring what the Elder is telling you is as their truth.

KAREN BROOKS: That's correct. But if you think about it, when you are a person who's out looking for plants, you know the plants. You know where they grow. You know what they grow next to, and there's that unsaid knowledge.

Um, and then, I mean, that's -- that's the magic of -- of it all is that you learn so much more than just the plant.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's well said. And that's the gift of going and being in nature or just the -- the very practice of learning traditional plant medicine, you learn about the ecosystem, the region, the bugs and the birds and the animals that live there.

And -- and that's the personal journey. KAREN BROOKS: That is.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's the personal journey of -- of sovereignty, I feel, because we are shared -- uh, we have a shared knowledge. And then we develop individual knowledge and meaning.

And that's our power and gift. KAREN BROOKS: Correct.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That time that we spend on the land empowers us, enlivens us, rejuvenates us.

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. And that was taken away. And -- and now we -- we are reclaiming that. I'm reclaiming it.

I'm doing things my mother and my grandmother were told not to do. Which I know in my heart that my grandmother saw other Yup'ik women gathering and doing, and I know that she really probably wanted to do that but couldn't.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Literally could not harvest from the land?

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. She was prevented. She could not. She was forced. That must have been horrific for her. So, no wonder my mother and her siblings did not learn Yup'ik, the Yup'ik language.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You shared your experience of lateral racism in your life where, uh, you were judged for not being Native enough. You were judged for not being white enough.

So, you experienced this professionally. You've experienced it in, uh -- at community gatherings, and you chose the middle path. You nurtured and owned your genealogy. You embraced your identity.

KAREN BROOKS: I had to. It was -- I had to or I would have walked down a whole different path.