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Naomi Michalsen
Naomi Michalsen

Naomi Kaasei Michalsen was interviewed on February 17, 2023 by Jennifer (Jen) Andrulli via Zoom. Naomi was in Ketchikan, Alaska and Jen was in La Tigra, Costa Rica. In this interview, Naomi talks about her work with traditional plant use. She talks about the Kaayani Sisters Council and their Respectful Harvesting Guidelines. She also talks about developing classroom curriculum about plants, the importance of access for plant collecting, the connection between people and plants, and uses of specific plants such as cedar, Labrador tea, and stinging nettles. Naomi closes the interview by reading a poem about cedar written by her daughter.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-37

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Feb 17, 2023
Narrator(s): Naomi Kaasei Michalsen
Interviewer(s): Jennifer "Jen" Andrulli
Transcriber: Karen Brewster
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
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Respectful harvesting

Kaayani Sisters Council and Respectful Harvesting Guidelines

Documenting harvests, and sharing guidelines

Hosting plant workshops

Access to traditional food and medicine, and commercial use of resources

Lack of access to lands and resources, impact of colonization, and sharing of knowledge

Traditional Protective Factors, and preserving cultural knowledge, identity and traditional practices

Communication and healing

Developing classroom curriculum

Use and importance of cedar

Use of Labrador tea (Hudson Bay tea)

Teachings from plants

Importance of herring eggs and stinging nettles

Moving plants to new locations, and gardening

Nurturing connections with nature

Daughter's poem about cedar and human connections

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JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Today is February 17th, 2023. I am Jen Andrulli, and I am here with Naomi Michalsen. We are on Zoom. Jen is in La Tigra, Costa Rica. Naomi is in Ketchikan, Alaska. 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, traditional ecological knowledge and traditional healing will become part of the Ethnobotany Project Jukebox hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and will be available online. Let's start with traditional introductions.

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Okay. (Speaking in Tlingit)

My Tlingit name is Kaasei. And Daaw Da Oo. I have my grandmother's name, Kaasei, which means "higher voice." And my great-grandmother's name, Daaw Da Oo.

I am Tlingit from the Eagle/Wolf Moiety. My clan is Wooshkeetaan. I come from the Shark House, and my ancestral home is in Auke Bay. Excuse me, Berners Bay, Daxanáak. And I am Áak'w Kwáan (people of Auke Bay).

My father's people are T'akdeintaan from Hoonah, and as well as European descent. I also have Japanese and Filipino heritage.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Honoring your work with the Kaayani Sisters Council, what are your thoughts that you'd like to share on respectful harvesting?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Thank you. That's such a really big question, but I think maybe I'll start with why. The reasoning behind coming up with a respectful guidelines.

And just over the years of having raised my children here -- here in Ketchikan, which is the home of the Taant'a Kwa'an and Sanyaa Kwa'an peoples. Just -- it's such a beautiful place and we really have everything that we need. It's so abundant with resources, and this land is so beautiful.

And as I raised my five children here, and now have nine grandchildren, I've noticed that some of the places that I've taken the grandchildren to, or even my children when they were younger, to go harvest and gather are not available anymore, not accessible, or that we're seeing the opposite and that is the disrespectful harvesting.

And so I've been able to meet some amazing people around the state, and I feel so blessed to have had so many amazing mentors and teachers and Elders in my life. And some of the teachings that they've passed on to me have been this respect that we have for the place that we live in and the people that are from that place.

And so these women that I have gotten to know over years, sometimes I just might've met somebody, but I was able to form a group called the Kaayani Sisters. And Kaayani is a Tlingit word, meaning "plant spirit" or "blossom" or "leaf."

And so this council is made up of women from around -- Indigenous women from around the state, from different regions of Alaska. And we're fairly new and it's -- we've just been around a couple years as a council.

And one of the first things that we wanted to do was to come up with this Respectful Harvesting Guideline and knowing that we -- You know, it's not a -- coming to people as you have to do this or that.

It's -- it's designed to have -- to help with dialogue. To hopefully create some thinking around how we harvest and before people go out to really help educate people on the differences of the Western way of extracting and the Indigenous way of really living in balance and taking care of each other and this -- and earth. And the sharing part, the reciprocity of the wonderful abundance that we do have.

And we've seen all over the world and all over in our state the opposite of that. And so out of desperation and passion for this land and our grandchildren in the next seven generations, we wanted to leave something as a starting point.

So schools can use it, you could use it in any setting really. Businesses, and in families of tribes as a starting point. And maybe these don't all -- these guidelines might not necessarily fit with you, but they might help people start something so they can create something of their own. Or they could just take it and use it as it is.

But it was a wide open -- really a gift to give back to people to -- to -- for us start having these conversations around how important our plants and medicines and foods are, and how we can better take care of them.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That was an important -- NAOMI MICHALSEN: I don't know if you wanted me --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Well, I was going to say, yeah, this -- an important first project and it's available on the Project Jukebox website and it's available online.

What are other projects that you're working on now that that's complete?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Yes. Well, we've completed the guidelines and it's an ongoing project. It can be updated. And we've added, since we've published it -- published, we added the documentation so that we can document any of our harvesting and gathering personally so that we can notice any changes definitely because of climate change or maybe because of the overharvesting.

Or maybe it's just our own journal so that we can go back and throughout the seasons really take note of -- and have that record of, you know, what we're doing in our areas.

So we're also sharing this. So whenever we have a chance or if we're asked to share or talk about respectful harvesting, many of us are plant medicine people.

And so some people are interested in coming to their organizations or their communities to help with culture camps or classes or plant walks.

And before we go into those types of things, this is really good to start with respectful harvesting.

And so we've been sharing this wherever we go and helping -- as we talk about plants and the traditional plant uses, starting with the idea of this conversation, which can be, you know, ongoing conversations. It could be very sensitive information.

It's -- It could be, you know, an hour before a class, but we're using it here also at the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan before some of our classes around getting out on the land and sharing the resources.

And so it really makes sense to do this beforehand so that when we're ready to go out and harvest or gather or -- and maybe not even gather, but just learn about the area that we're in, we are going out in a good way.

So we've been sharing the guidelines, updating them as we go. We'd love feedback.

And then the other thing that we've been working on is to hold plant symposiums or workshops. Symposium is a little, you know, bit of a academia type word, so really we just want to get people out on the land and share together and learn together.

And so it could be a simple small gathering or it could be an event. Like we've had here in Ketchikan, we've had a plant symposium, we've had two of them, and we had one last year in Juneau, and there's -- we had a virtual one for Southeast Alaska.

And those were all so amazing and it's so wonderful to hear the responses from people that have been able to attend.

And I was just at an event last night for Elizabeth Peratrovich celebration, and one of the Elders asked when we were going to do -- do it again here in Ketchikan.

So it's so surprising to hear the comments from people when you put -- they touch a plant, they learn about a plant, or you bring a plant to an Elder and they remember stories again. And they remember harvesting or they remember their grandparents and then they share.

And some of the comments of -- from some of our people that have attended these types of gatherings really surprised me, and they're so powerful. I'll share a few of them. And this was just after a day or two of gathering around our plants.

And so one of the Elders said, "I am 70 years old and this is the best day of my life."

A young boy, he was I think maybe 11 or 12, came with his grandmother and he said, "I didn't really know why I was coming here, but my grandmother asked me to be here." And he was just thrilled to be a part of the two days.

And just the comment from a young person. "My heart is full. I'm filled with joy." "Thank you for bringing this back to us. We've been waiting." Just really amazing comments from people.

And I think the -- there's also, at the same time that we share this information, there's a real need to really talk about cultural appropriation. To talk about, you know, what is it that's happening that we don't agree with, and how can we work with people in our community to become better stewards of the land?

And so there's a lot of talk about, you know, benefit sharing for people that own businesses or that are harvesting with permits and how can they give back to the community that they live in, and are they practicing respectful harvesting guidelines, and are they sharing.

And do our own people have access to our foods and medicines? And what I mean by our own people, I mean people from the land that -- that --

For example, I'd be really concerned here if the Taant'a Kwa'an and Sanyaa Kwa'an and our Indigenous peoples didn't have access to their own foods and medicines here, but yet it's being sold in our stores or offered as part of maybe a tour.

And so to me, that would -- I would consider that being out of balance when our Elders can't get those foods, but you can find them for sale or somebody's profiting and benefiting from that.

And so the idea of benefit sharing would be, you know, if a business is doing that, how can they take a look at what they're doing and how are they benefiting the community?

So those are -- there's so many things to talk about with just building a, you know, real understanding of and a connection to the people whose land you are harvesting.

And when I say land, I also mean ocean. Just as there were land grabs and our people were left out of the ability to -- it was illegal for us to own land. The same thing I feel is happening a lot in our oceans right now with the maritime industry.

And so being careful to support our communities, but at the same time take a look at the access and the sustainability of what some of the plans are.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Can you expand on the reason why Elders and tribal members don't have access to the land? You had mentioned earlier today about landless tribes.

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Yeah, it's different for each community, but -- And depending on the food or plants, the one biggest reason why we don't have access to our lands -- or the plants, maybe is because the information has been -- has not been available because of colonization and boarding schools and separation of our children at a very young age from their homelands. And so that's -- so, you know -- You know, that's the -- one of the biggest reasons.

The other is just the idea of competition and it's not really how our people were. We were cooperative. It was not about the individual, it was about the community. So when we harvest, we would share.

And so helping people to remember or to learn how to do these things and to learn new plants and what's out there is part of this wonderful teaching that's happening and learning for not just our children, but also people my age, Elders who didn't grow up around this.

So just the sharing of the knowledge, at the same time having to really be careful of what is being shared. And we're calling that today, what is it culturally safe, cultural safety.

How are we making sure that the intellectual property rights are being honored in these places? I didn't know if I answered the question.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And I want to say thank you. Quyana. For being in service to the remembering. Being a mentor and bringing plants closer to the community.

Quyana for creating space for Elders and for the sharing of knowledge from our knowledge keepers and wisdom keepers.

Can you share some of your teachings from specific plants?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Gunalchéesh for your kind words. I -- Yes, I have kind of developed a little -- a one-pager, respectful -- It's called "Traditional Protective Factors."

And I think that also is something that I've shared for over a decade. For quite some time, oh, probably about the last two decades I've been sharing and presenting on the concept and my own story of -- you know, this ongoing healing.

And I might've titled it something like "Our Culture is Prevention, Intervention and Healing." And with that, I would talk about the protective factors and how we know about the risk factors that we've had as Indigenous peoples of the colonization and boarding schools and much more the -- such as the loss and the grief. And --

But the protective factors would be the -- the -- what we see that's going -- that is really I -- makes me so excited to see the -- the efforts to learn our languages, the efforts to learn about our plants and medicines and foods, our -- the stories, our songs.

And to really come back to this idea that we are the medicine, and that strengthening our relationships with our own families, our clans, communities, and especially for our children, that cultural identity is such a huge part of being well and knowing who we are. Like you mentioned, remembering who we are.

Those can all come through our plants, teachings and our songs. And so just really this idea of celebrating more of really who we are and helping each other to remember and to learn in whatever ways that is.

But this protective factor sheet is an idea of, you know, a list, again, of just ideas to validate that these are healing for our people and our families, and they could be our ceremonies, potlatches. You know, paying attention to our dreams, caring for nature, our relationship to the spiritual world and all living things.

You know, we're all related. Our language and cultural knowledge, learning place names and land, knowing our history, advocating our true history, our traditional songs and dance and taking part in all these, the youth and Elders, and celebrations and Native Youth Olympics, culture camps. Those are all such promising -- And to me, protecting our children and families.

And, you know, the weaving, the bringing back the moose hides, tanning, the skin sewing, drum making, food gathering, and our natural medicines, and learning about the weather, climate change, the fishing and hunting skills and the digging of roots and preparing, you know, our foods.

And how we are with each other as our families and kinship and the Tlingit culture. It's all about balance and the eagle and the raven and doing things. Everything we do is -- should be for our opposites. And so we take care of our opposites.

And so developing skills to consult and communicate with Elders, and really having these difficult conversations that we need to have. And instead of the old ways of not talking about things or, you know, just stuffing things inside, really helping people to have the hard conversations around, you know, some of the things that have happened to all of us and how we can grow and heal together.

And it's just really all about our relationships, how we're -- they're all connected. So, you know, it's a part of the social justice and everything is so connected, and this is where you'll find where, what is she even talking about? And she's, you know --

I might talk about something over here and what does that have to do with this, but -- ?

And a lot of our -- the teachers that I've had, they -- they -- things do come back and it does make sense, and it's just a way of life and living. It isn't necessarily, you know, a class or a workshop, it's just a way to be a human.

One of my mentors, her name is Grandmother Percy, and she lives in -- she's Hopi. And she always -- I love what she says about "we're all just practicing to become professional human beings." I love that.

And another one of my mentors, grandmother Rita Blumenstein, says that we just need to be ourselves. And -- or we're learning to become ourselves.

And I just think about how profound that statement really is.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: It is beautiful. The messages from our Elders and our aunties, they're so wise. And how would we use plants to support being human? Everybody's always looking for, you know -- because they're sick or they want something, right?

Many people want something from nature. You know, but coming to plant medicine at times for support.

And then, so the opposite of that is how do we support nature? How do we be support for our opposite, which is nature?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Hm mm. You asked about some of the plants that I -- and some of the other work that the Kaayani Sisters Council is working on, and we've --

I've been working with Elise Krohn and some folks from the area in Washington state and working on a curriculum that we're just finishing on. And it's going to be an ongoing -- the same as the guidelines we're updating.

But we were working on the Alaskan version, adaptation, of Alaska Plant Teachings. And this is where I feel the -- it's another gift to give back to the communities of some of the plants that we've chosen to be included in this curriculum.

And it can be expanded or people can take things and, you know, we take a look at it and maybe do something in their own regions.

But many of the plants are similar to plants all over the state. However, we have in each region some amazing differences and amazing plants that we can't find in other regions.

And so, you know, I believe that we've always traded and shared these foods and medicines and so learning about them and how to protect them and -- is part of the goal of the Kaayani Sisters Council.

So, for example, cedar, we have -- we are so fortunate here in Ketchikan, we have red and yellow cedar, and we've used cedar for thousands of years, and it's such a gift to us.

And the teachings around cedar are -- You know, there are many teachings, but the teachings in the curriculum are generosity and kindness.

And when you think about how generous that cedar has been to our peoples and to this place, and they live to 1500 years or more.

And how they've been here, they've stood here, and they hold so much knowledge. And they're helping us to remember who we are.

I love to see our young people learning now how to weave. They're making hats, headbands, baskets. They're learning all because of cedar and they're remembering.

So the teachings around generosity and kindness can be expanded on and help us share stories and to come together as a community.

For example, let's see, Labrador Tea or Hudson Bay Tea. Here we say S'ikshaldéen. It's the -- the teachings are belonging. And how, you know, if I'm away from home for a while, one of the first things I do when I really miss home and I can't -- I'm happy to be back home is I get out on the muskeg and I'm around this tea that smells so wonderful, and it reminds me of home.

A lot of our people have said that they've -- when they move away, that they really miss the smell and they miss home.

And I -- I was -- had the opportunity to be out on the tundra with the beautiful tea there, and it was, you know, the -- it just has this smell that you can't compare with anything else.

And so we feel the sense of belonging.

We have a lot of plants that help us physically and spiritually for protection. Each region has these things.

And so we have plants that help us to be mindful, help us with stress, how to be more aware of our area and self-aware, and that they help us build healthy relationships.

And so when you think about there's another licorice fern root, for example, the teaching is finding your voice and learning about, you know, how to stand up for ourselves or others, how to advocate for change and speaking our truth and standing on our own, standing our ground. So that comes from the licorice fern root.

So those are some of the examples of the work that I'm working on right now. And it's really exciting.

Again, the -- it's been helping and we know it works. It's been helping so many people in Washington state, and it just also makes sense.

It really aligns with our traditional knowledge and values that we have.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's a beautiful practice of the teachings of the plants in that way. I have not seen this perspective in teachings of Alaska plants. So I'm really excited to see this future work and how it will disperse like seeds through the Alaska Native plant community. And I look forward to reading that.

Are there plants that you have in your home pharmacy that are "must haves" for your health and your family's health?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Yes, and, of course, they're the ones that are really difficult to find in my area, but they might be abundant in other areas.

But one is -- that I really look forward to, the -- You know, I think the beginning or new year for me is the time of the herring eggs on the hemlock or on the kelp.

So the herring egg time, you know, the end of March, is to me like our new year. And then from there comes a lot of our sprouts and greens, and I feel like after the long winter and some of the darkness and the dreaming and the creating time, the springtime is exciting and also a time to cleanse.

And I feel like the stinging nettles is my go-to plant that I really, really, really love.

It's hard to ask a plant person what their favorite plant is.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: I know. NAOMI MICHALSEN: But that is one of them. And our foods.

And so when we have our herring eggs, and, you know, it would be -- it's such a dream to have -- to think about having herring eggs and stinging nettles, juice, eating the stinging nettles when they're young and having black seaweed.

You know, this is all our springtime foods and everything is starting to wake up and come alive and all of our sprouts.

Yeah. So I think for my own well-being and health, I think those are -- I would have to pick stinging nettles and some of our foods in the springtime,

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: We used to cultivate in some tribes in Alaska or we had a tradition of moving plants closer to our summer or winter camps. I was wondering, how do you feel about moving nettle closer to you?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Yeah. Well, traditionally, the nettles in this area, what you might find or have been in the old village sites, and so I know they're from here, they just aren't here in abundance.

And so when I've -- when I have had the chance to find where there were enough to take some and try to replant, I've done that. And so I have a very small little tiny garden of nettles that I think I'm just in the second year. And so I'm hoping that they come back each year. So it's still a work in progress.

But yeah, I know of a friend in Kenai, Tia Holley, who is doing just that. So she's able to grow things in her own garden that are -- and then if anybody is generous, Tia is the most generous person I know, so -- And her purpose for that is to share.

And also the Kenaitze tribe has a high tunnel outside of their office building, which they grow a lot of their traditional plants right there.

And so I just think that's so beautiful, so that Elders that maybe aren't able to get out that far, they can actually go in and harvest right there at their property. So --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You spoke a little earlier about walking in prayer, being a human being in that connection to -- as human beings are connection to the plant spirits.

Can you share some traditional knowledge of -- of nurturing our sensitive connection to nature and in cultivating our unique individual gifts?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: Well, that was one of the questions that we asked each other as the Kaayani Sisters. And the really beautiful thing is everybody had a different answer, and we honor that.

And so we honor the differences that people have to, you know, be in whatever ceremony or prayer or blessing or how they are in nature. And some people even dreamed about things before they would harvest.

Grandmother shared a story the night before, and they had a dream about this plant and woke up ready to go. So --

I think it's up to the individual or family how you do that. But, you know, acknowledging the land and Creator, the plants, and really looking at how these are living beings and that they're our relatives.

And when we think about them as our family, it changes the way we feel about them, I believe. And so if we believe this is our family, then we wouldn't want to cut down the Tongass (National Forest).

If we believe that this was our family, then we would want to protect our streams from some of the mining, those types of things.

And so I feel like we -- when we really start to learn and love the plants in this way, our relationships strengthens.

I know some people say a blessing or a song prayer, they might smudge or meditate before going out, talk to the plant, sing to the plant, many different practices.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: In this way, we develop our sensitivities to listening to nature. NAOMI MICHALSEN: Hm mm.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Is there anything you would like to share before we close?

NAOMI MICHALSEN: I would just like to thank you for the invitation today. And I do have a poem that my daughter wrote. And she wrote it about -- it was about cedar. Could end with that.


NAOMI MICHALSEN: So this is from Hia (sp?) Michalsen. Tling'it name is Tóos Séek, Shark Daughter. Mother nature. My mother's true nature, giving up is no option. You buckle down even when you pick berries. Speaking in a language most are afraid to.

The utmost power lies within your soul. Your open arms is a task many fear to take, yet body, mind, spirit, your cultural dignity, cultural respect, cultural awareness buried you beneath the most sought out soil. Even so you surpassed the peaking heights of shadow casting trees.

No trees are as sturdy as a cedar that you became embracing all parts of the forest with your endless branches. Thick skinned bark protects who needs it most, making use of the time given. Learning its land, waltzing with the winds, swaying with the storms.

Enduring this brutality may snap branches. Regardless, unable to weaken your durability. Gusts push. Lightning strikes. But you are the tree. You believed in your roots. You trusted your trunk until the forest relied on you.

New plants, old plants, forgotten plants. They all lived to support you. You lived not because you could support them, but because unexpectedly you were the support they needed most.

For your tree is forgiveness and love. Passion and momentum. Rooted so deeply, the woodcutters give up their axes and praise the foundation of bark that has grown so wild and free, cut loose from the shadows lurking beneath the branches of greed.

Your roots are fertilized by your ancestors' blessing, by your will, by your way.

At first, unaware -- At first, unsure where to safely grow. Lost, in turn found, your risks have taken -- your risk taken have evolved your hopes into reality.

For struggles have uplifted your journey, tumultuous yet dire. Standing beneath the shadows of this world illuminated a most glorious light that guides seedlings and sprouts, nourishing their otherwise neglected potentials. Gunalchéesh.