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Karen Brooks, Part 4
Karen Brooks

This is the continuation of an interview with Karen Brooks on December 31, 2021 by her daughter, Jennifer Andrulli, in Soldotna, Alaska. In this fourth part of a four part interview, Karen continues to talk about the use of plants as traditional medicine. She discusses the importance of developing a respectful relationship with plants, asking permission before picking, only harvesting what you need, and leaving a gift of thanks. She also talks about being careful to know and understand the plants and their powers, how medicine people have special plants that they use, and the importance of learning from Elders.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-31_PT.4

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.


Plant medicine and traditional healing supporting recovery from trauma

Plant harvesting protocol

Transplanting plants

Storing and accessing plants in their natural setting

Special plants used by medicine people

Being careful with plants and knowing how to use them properly

Leaving a gift of thanks, and learning from Elders

Learning skin sewing and beadwork from Athabascan Elder Sally Hudson

Journey to self-healing, and understanding our connections to the natural world

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


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: December 31st, 2021. Interviewing Karen Brooks, continuing the conversation.

And so, you -- you said that you had to take this middle path in order to survive and thrive and be who you really were? KAREN BROOKS: I --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- or your life would have turned out differently?

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, I think it would have, because on my father's side, I saw how the traumas of their lives as a child -- but it was in the closet. You didn't talk about it either, although they all went to church, and, you know, we're on the -- on the outside very normal people.

Ah, my mother's people were -- they showed their unhealthiness on the outside. And -- but they also didn't talk about it.

I was very curious in what God was all about. So, I studied from the time I was very, very young, very interested.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, here we are now with reams of statistics on historical, intergenerational, and epigenetic trauma, and how this manifests in our culture, and with addiction and chronic illness, and even uh, say, our different rates and statistics.

So, how can plant medicine and traditional healing support recovery?

KAREN BROOKS: Just the fact by -- of going outside, learning the plants and how they live with other plants, and the wonder and beauty of this earth.

It is an amazing place, because it's not just the plants. It's the smell of the earth. It's watching the animals, and the birds, and their relationship to -- to the plants, because we're all connected.

Plants, animals, birds, all beings here on Earth are connected.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You have a beautiful relationship with all living things, and thank you for sharing and helping us understand.

Can you share how you communicate with plants before you harvest them? What's your protocol?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I always say a prayer. I -- before I even get to where the plants are. And then, I ask the plant, you know, I ask, "Can I come and pick you? Can -- you know, is it okay? Are you ready?"

And -- and then the plants just show me which ones I can pick. I always leave plants. I don't take all the plants.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You take, uh -- like in our family, we harvest less than a quarter of what's present. Leave the rest for others and animals.

Have, uh, -- has a plant said, "No, you cannot harvest it"? KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, it has.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, you move on?

KAREN BROOKS: I move on. Yeah. It's like we're gardeners of the earth. You know, we're sort of, uh, pruning and picking plants for Mother Earth, I think.

Um, you don't pick it all. You just kind of sort it out so that more can grow.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And as you move through the berry patch, or the plant patch -- pick a little here, pick a little there.

You cover more ground, you have more nature to see and experience as you move through the landscape.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh yeah. And you treat 'em like they were in your garden, because they are in your garden, ultimately.

You know, you just go out there and it's your garden.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's so beautiful. When I was young, we -- we moved some plants closer to the house.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, to see if they would grow. And surprisingly, they do grow in -- yeah, they do.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Many plants transplant well.

It's -- it's very nice to have my favorite traditional plant medicines close to my home, so I don't have to travel so far.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. Yeah. When I'm really old, that would be nice. You know, just step out into the yard and go pick whatever plant I -- I need.

And because we were a nomadic people, that's what we did. We just went and picked what we needed.

We didn't store a whole lot, although we did store, you know, I'm finding out. But not massive amounts.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Right, we didn't travel with all that we stored.

KAREN BROOKS: No, no, no, no, no. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: All the time, right? We had different --

KAREN BROOKS: Although some plants, like juniper, they would leave buried in the snow. And when they needed to use juniper berries for coughs and -- and, um, severe problems, they knew where they were. So, they'd go dig them up and take the medicine.

It was like, natural, uh, environment to keep -- preserve 'em until they were needed.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so -- so in the past, traditionally, we -- families knew many, many plants. We knew all the edible plants and all of those plants -- where they were in the landscape, where to find them. This is how we thrived and sustained ourselves in the Arctic.

And then -- not all Alaska Natives were medicine people. And so, the medicine people would have special plants?


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, you know, knowledge between indigenous people, I believe, was passed from -- from tribe to tribe.

I think we were connected, uh, with the tribes in Australia, um, via journeying.

I think the information for special plants, especially vision, uh, plants, was shared and known with the medicine people.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And then, there's this story I've heard around, um, so -- a medicine person could have 20 plants that they worked with, or they could even have only one plant, and that one plant, did everything that they needed to heal.

KAREN BROOKS: That's correct. They would have a plant ally, and that plant would -- you know, tell them -- it was like having a twin in your head, I guess.

You know that -- they -- a very intimate connection with that plant.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And that's private information. It's often the medicine people are not going to tell you what that plant is.

We have those plants to this day. We have plant allies, we have plant helpers. And that is sacred information.

KAREN BROOKS: It is, because people, as a rule, really don't pay attention to the -- the power and the properties of what plant medicine is. And therefore can harm themselves, in fact, can die from overdosing on plant medicine.

You have to have knowledge. You have to know what you're doing. You have to have that intimate connection with the plant and know how to properly use it for whatever is going on in the body.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And -- and this is -- this is plant says, you know, what we would say, "Oh, we can go to Fred Meyer's and buy chamomile, nettle, yarrow tea, and we -- and it's in a very, you know, specific tea bag size. And it's one teaspoon of -- of dried herb. But if you go out into the landscape here in Alaska, pick Alaska Yarrow, you could overdo it. KAREN BROOKS: Yeah.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: On too much yarrow. KAREN BROOKS: Yeah.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Where it could be very drying to your body.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, yeah. And, um, and that's why there's medicine people, because they are born to do that. From the time they're very, very young, they have this interest, and they follow their dream.

And Indigenous cultures always honored that child for -- they honored every child for what they were gifted with. And that is the key.

You gift every -- everyone is gifted with what they know. And you allow that gift to grow.

And you allow it by watering it and being -- it's a tender little gift, like a tender little plant coming out of the ground.

You nurture it, you support it, you keep it fed, and it will indeed fruit and be an amazing being.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Hmm. That's so beautiful. Thank you for bringing up these, uh, cautions and contra-indications with plant medicine that --

We have shared some -- over the last two days, we shared a lot of external applications, making oils for pain and inflammation.

When it comes to making plant medicine for internal application, do your research, do your studies, talk with Elders, read the books, have living teachers, seek them out.

KAREN BROOKS: Very -- Yeah, be very cautious about what you put in your mouth. But also, the medicine that grows up here is way more powerful than the medicine you buy in the tea bag.

You don't know how long that's been sitting there, and you don't know where it was harvested at. You do know where it's harvested if you do it yourself, and the potency is way better.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: There's intention, there's prayer, there's the landscape that you've harvested from here.

That's also part of the -- the vibrational medicine of the plant.

KAREN BROOKS: And, after I'm done, I always leave a gift. I feed the earth, you know, be it leftovers from the lunch I brought, or water that I have brought.

I don't need it when I leave, so I will leave some. I'll leave a part as my gift and -- and my thanks for that plant being there.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And Alaska Natives, American Indians, Indigenous people who have been born with these gifts of sensitivity, of healing, of traditional medicine, we're really blessed right now to have access to living teachers, Elders, and then opportunities to study at university and different fields that support our traditional healing and ethnomedicine histories.

And so, we can practice in this world as a traditional healer. We can go on and have education in Western herbalism, ethnobotany, naturopathy, homeopathy, body work.

KAREN BROOKS: And there's pockets of people all over the place that their family has maybe one or two plants that they've never stopped using.

And if you are lucky enough to meet a family like that, pay attention to how they use it, ask questions, because maybe that isn't in a book yet. And because that's a recent thing.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And like mom said yesterday, leave a gift. When you spend time with a traditional healer, culture bearer, uh, you know, plan in advance to -- to share and exchange for that knowledge and wisdom and time.

Uh, just visiting with a traditional healer is healing.

KAREN BROOKS: Yeah, it is. It's -- you know, they have a lot on their mind, and they're always doing something for somebody.

And so, you know, I can think of an Elder that I -- and just sewing furs, and that's healing in itself.

And I -- I had to make an appointment with her. And she was very, uh, clear about -- I could only ask one question.

So, I would really think very, very hard and ask a couple of questions in my one question, but I always brought a gift for her. And --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: What was her name?

KAREN BROOKS: Sally Hudson. And she was known for her beautiful parkas.

I learned how to, uh, skin sew and do beadwork Athabaskan style in the '70s. And she was a very good teacher and an amazing skin sewer.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And that is how I learned to skin sew is -- you learn to skin sew and taught me.

And I was a very warm child. I had beaver hat, gloves, and mukluks.

KAREN BROOKS: That's right, because we lived in the land of cold. It was cold. So, honor -- honor your Elders.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Do you have anything you'd like to share before we close?

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, I can't think of anything except for the journey to self-healing is to acknowledge that we're all broken in some way.

And we're all connected on this planet, and we're all worthy.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Beautiful. Thank you.