Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Project Jukebox Survey

Help us redesign the Project Jukebox website by taking a very short survey!

Meda DeWitt
Meda DeWitt

Meda DeWitt was interviewed on October 28, 2022 by Jennifer "Jen" Andrulli via Zoom. Meda was in Anchorage, Alaska and Jen was in Soldotna, Alaska. In this interview, Meda talks about her work as a traditional healer and the plants she uses. She also discusses the impacts of colonization on Alaska Native cultural systems, in particular that of traditional medicine and traditional healers. She also discusses the importance of understanding Indigenous language terms and perspectives, traditional agricultural methods, and transplanting of indigenous plants.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-34

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Oct 28, 2022
Narrator(s): Meda DeWitt
Interviewer(s): Jennifer "Jen" Andrulli
Transcriber: Ruth Sensenig
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.



Individualized practice of Indigenous medicine

Ethnoherbalism, and Indigitization of terminology and perspective

Dr. Oscar Kwagaley, medicine people or shamans, and traditional protocols

Role of the traditional healer, and regaining cultural knowledge

Impact of Western contact to Alaska Native cultural systems

Colonization, introduction of diseases, and destruction of traditional healer social system

Role of missionaries in eliminating traditional medicine

Defining oneself as a traditional healer

Impact of Christianity on traditional healing systems

Rematriation of traditional healing, influence of particular women healers, and overcoming generational trauma

Traditional agricultural methods, and balance with nature

Climate change, and exchange of knowledge

Impacts from overharvesting or poor harvest techniques

Impact on honeybees, and supporting indigenous plants and pollinators

Planting indigenous plants in new places, and sharing seeds

Growing your own food and medicine plants, and respecting Native culture and practices

Learning traditional plant knowledge

Keystone plant species

Future stewardship of the land and taking care of each other

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 October 28, 2022. I am Jennifer Andrulli, and I am here with Meda DeWitt. We are on Zoom. Meda is in Anchorage, Alaska, and I am in Soldotna, 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, ethnoherbalism, and traditional healing will become 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 your knowledge. Let’s start with traditional introductions.

MEDA DEWITT: Gunalchéesh. (Greeting and introduction in Tlingit) My English name is Meda DeWitt. My Tlingit names are Tśa Tsée Náakw and Khaat kł My adopted Iñupiaq name is Tigigalook, and my adopted Northern Cree name from Harry Watchmaker is Boss Eagle Spirit Woman ("Boss"). And I am calling in from De’naina etłana (sp?).

My family comes from Wrangell, Alaska, which was Shtuxéen kwaan, as well as Yakutat, Alaska. And I was born on Prince of Wales Island in Klawock in Alicia Roberts’ house.

I am Tlingit. I’m also Haida and some Tahltan and a lot of Scottish as well, and Irish and Norwegian Viking and Austrian and some French.

I have -- my fiancé is James Christopher Paoli, and we have eight children total, four of mine and four of his. And you may pick up some laughing in the background on the recording today, but that’s just part of life and also Native households is generally having kids and lots of kids around.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you again for sharing your wisdom around plant medicine, ethnoherbalism, traditional healing. Where would you like to start today?

MEDA DEWITT: Well, there’s a lot to talk about. The process of Indigenous medicine is not linear and cookie cutter. It is individualistic to the community, to the tribes, and to the people who are practicing it. And so, maybe starting with -- with some of those -- those concepts is really important.

Um, so in Alaska, we have six major ecoregions. Our state is quite large. It’s 20 percent of the United States land mass, and we have over 11 different languages and 22 different dialectical variants. And each one of those groups within them has family and clan groups.

Now we can say ubiquitously, we all use plants as food and medicine, and there’s very similar uses, um, throughout the entire state, and there’s even some plants that live throughout the entire state.

However, the relationship between a -- a family or a clan or an individual and how they utilize their recipes, the stories, the songs, the prayers, the protocols, they may be different from group to group.

And so, it’s really important that we recognize this independence or autonomy. It’s not just for the whole group in government-to-government relationships. Sovereignty is also practiced throughout our strata of society pre-contact.

So in the context that I speak from is very pan-Alaskan, and that’s because I’ve had a lot of teachers. I even have education in plant medicine down in the Oregon and Washington area, starting in my childhood from my grandfather.

So I have taught in every ecoregion in the state. Not every community, because that’s a lot. That’s like 229 communities, but I have taught in every ecoregion and cultural group in the state, as well as in Yukon Territories, Canada, and like I said, in Oregon and Washington and Montana.

Um, so the journey of ethnoherbalism, which I have to say, that term, ethnoherbalism, was coined by our illustrious Jennifer Andrulli, who is also a plant medicine person and a peer and a leader in our philosophy in traditional healing in the state.

So I really love using that term, um, because it focuses on the story part. You know, ethnobotany is more of a scientific or Western viewpoint of traditional medicine and traditional plant medicine, and, you know, we have to reframe our locus of control.

We have to reframe where we’re speaking from and what perspective we’re in. Because, for instance, when you say decolonization, the focus is still on the colonizer, right. So we call it, a better word is Indigenization, right.

Or there’s other -- other words that we can use that focus from our worldview and from our fixed point in the universe.

And when we do this, it helps to, um -- instead of fighting for the permission to be something, you’re asserting that you are that thing, and that already exists, and that it is a fundamental truth that can’t be removed.

So in ethnoherbalism, it’s speaking from story and relationship, and relatives with the plants, animals, and nature.

Dr. Oscar Kawagley was a Yupik philosopher, and he wrote some really great papers. One of them really speaks to me, and I found out later that my auntie, Linda DeWitt, was actually married to Dr. Kawagley during those years, and she did the typing and the editing and helped co-create his thought, like the content.

It is his content. It is his intellectual property. But she was there to help dialogue with him and fill in gaps and be that sacred feminine to that sacred masculine. But in that patriarchal system, um, it was just safer for him to own all that content.

So my cousin is Tamaree Kawagley. They had a child together.

And so, reading in his works, I can really identify with many pieces of it and then later found out, that’s why, ’cause my auntie, my family helped to inform that thinking, um, in a real, tangible way. So it works.

And one of the things that he talks about is the role of a medicine person. And the role of a medicine person -- And he uses the term shaman. Shaman is a Yakutian word from Yakutsk in Russia, and it was adopted by anthropologists to describe all medicine people.

In our state, shaman is used as an easy catchphrase, but it doesn’t actually speak to the layers and the individuality of our groups and our medicine people and how they operate.

It’s like saying traditional healer. Traditional healer is analogous to saying, like, doctor. You know, doctor of psychiatry or doctor of podiatry or doctor of veterinarian medicine, right. We have lots of different doctor terms.

And so we have to be really conscious when we’re speaking to a group in not only understanding what we’re saying, but maybe understanding what they’re saying at the same time.

So Dr. Oscar Kawagley was talking about a medicine person or an aŋnaługak (sp?).

Sorry. I don’t know if you need me to start over and you edit it or just keep going. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Nope. There will be no editing. MEDA DEWITT: Ok, well, I have a really big family, so. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Ok. It’s ok. We don’t --

MEDA DEWITT: Um, yeah, so understanding where that framework is coming from. So Dr. Oscar Kawagley was specifically speaking about medicine people and their role, and he was speaking about ixt in Tlingit, which is our deep medicine people, right, the shamans.

And their role is being the intermediary of the spiritual world, the natural world, and the human world. And that intermediary, their job is to understand where the imbalance is and what actions by which party are necessary to balance those situations to create harmony.

And that harmony is the foundation of a thriving, healthy ecosystem and thriving, healthy human communities, and healthy human spirits.

And when we look at that as a profession, that’s a very noble space to be in, but it’s also very challenging to be in that space, to be in that liminal space between all three.

And we have traditional protocols. You know, there’s reasons why those -- those deeply spiritual and sensitive people were generally, you know, stayed away from the community. They had a house or a camp that was not in the community proper.

One, it reduces the noise. Two, it reduces, maybe, the social drama that somebody might be brought into. And it helps to be the intermediary, because they’re not then solely, you know, just steeped in the human world. They’re also in the natural world.

So when we’re looking at that, that’s one layer, right, that deep, deep layer. But it’s really hard to stay in that space. And so, many of us may dip in and out of that space, but may not retain that kind of work.

And so then, as you look at traditional healers and their different gift sets, there’s the plants as food and medicine, so ethnoherbalism.

And, you know, being the community herbalist, there were -- every single community, every single house, every single person had a foundational knowledge of the plants around them and how to use them as food and medicine.

And so, many times the work that we’re doing now in this process of rematriation of our traditional culture and content, you know, our knowledge base, when we’re bringing that back, many of us are teaching just foundational use and knowledge that even our five and six-year-olds might have known pre-contact.

And then when you had specialty items that couldn’t be handled in the home, or couldn’t be handled by normal application, then you would go to the next layer up, right, the community herbalist. Or the community, you know, body worker. Or the community spiritual intermediary.

And so you had specialists that focused in these different regions. And some of them may be the interface with the animals, some of them may be the interface with the plants, some of them may be the interface with, you know, spirit. And so that was much easier to handle on a regular basis at that level of focus and operation.

Um, what happened during contact is -- is multiple layers. You know, we had the at contact the exposure to microbes that we had not been exposed to before. And there, you know, most people know about the influenza and, you know, smallpox. There’s also venereal diseases, which isn’t talked about very much.

That’s one of the challenges that we had was this transition from a matrilineal society to a patriarchal society. Um, and I don’t say matriarchal, because that’s still a pyramidical process.

And so it’s matrilineal egalitarian is actually the structure that we had throughout the state. And there’s different variations of social stratification and caste systems, depending on what group you’re in.

Like up north, you have the whalers that are the leaders, the elder women who were the knowledge keepers and had the last say, and then you had the community that was very egalitarian.

Whereas you get all the way down to Southeast, and you have, you know, the lead man and you have the elder women, and Elders who were their balance and made sure that they’re doing what they were supposed to do. And then you had noble commoners and laborers. So, the -- but overall, we were matrilineal and mostly egalitarian.

And at contact, we had a disruption in our communal systems. Some of our communities lost 90 percent of their people to smallpox and influenza. Some communities lost everybody. The whole town, you know, passed away.

We have stories of Elders where -- and it’s more than once, there’s a story of like a young boy or two young boys who ended up having to bury as many people as they could or set fire to their community and then walk away. You know, or grandmas -- you know, little -- little children having to walk away. And talking about how eventually they were found and taken to a local orphanage.

And so our -- our history is very complex, because not every community had the same relationship with contact, you know. In the Aleutian Islands, we had 1741, we had contact with Vitus Bering. And we had this onslaught of Russian traders who were basically just ravenously, you know, murdering and pillaging and extracting, just almost at a -- a furious pace.

You know, a fervor that was so grotesque that when the Russian priests came over and saw it, they were ashamed of their people. And they asked for priests to come over from Russia, not to assimilate the Alaska Native people, but to put their own people in check. Put the Russian traders in check, because it was so bad.

You know, we have stories of Elders from, like the Refuge Rock, where this -- you know, it came through the communities what was happening from the Russians, and it was the raping and molestation and mutilation of women was so bad that an entire community’s worth of women went up to Refuge Rock.

The women and the daughters and the children, and they all jumped off the cliff so they could have a clean, honorable death, and their children did not have to face that level of trauma.

So those are realities that we face in the state. I think that the Aleutians probably had it the hardest. Not that anybody wins at the trauma Olympics, but just acknowledging that that’s a real experience, and they did have the hardest exposure out of the rest of the group.

So that colonization, you know, it was tempered by their own priests, but it still advanced over into Southeast Alaska. We had, you know, trades with the Russians within a hundred years, and then throughout the state on the coasts there’s a lot of Russian influence and trade.

And then when you go up further, up north with the Iñupiaq people, theirs was much later. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the Boston whalers -- the Boston whalers came up.

And again, it’s that biowarfare. They would take people in by gunpoint into homes with people who were infected with smallpox, and they would infect the whaling captain’s house on purpose. To basically take out their competition and break down the social structures.

’Cause once you take out those key, um, keystones, or, you know, those important house posts of a community, then they’re easier to control.

Uh, Interior Alaska was more by the US Army or the Hudson Bay Trading Company had that influence.

In Southeast Alaska with the Tlingit Haida and Tsimshian, because they -- there’s no actual invisible border, a geopolitical border, there are people who live in the Yukon Territories, and their exposure was much later than on the coast, and their exposure was from the Hudson Bay Trading Company.

So we have all these different stories and relationships throughout the state, and the reason why this is important when we’re talking about medicine is because our medicine was also affected at these same times.

One of the cornerstones of a community was, and sometimes still is, the medicine person. Whether they’re the midwife, whether they’re the -- the ixt, right, whether they’re the herbalist or the bonesetter.

They were wise people who were cornerstones of the community and helped to create that resilience within the community.

So for instance, we can look at our neighbors to the south, the Hopi. They didn’t allow their children to go to boarding schools. The medicine men would not allow it.

And they were more obedient to their medicine men than they were to the missionaries. So the military came in, and the -- they worked together, and they actually arrested the 19 medicine men from the Hopi tribes, and they put them on Alcatraz. And they were, um -- they weren't -- they were never brought back.

So that model came up to Alaska. They already knew when they got here, and they being the United States military and other advancers of colonization, knew that you have to get rid of the medicine people to be able to effectively manipulate and control a population.

And it was very synchronized in the way that they went about this process. They either took them out and murdered them and buried the body or disposed of it in some way. Or they sent them to, um, penitentiaries or insane asylums.

You know, Dr. Bob’s, excuse me, not doctor, but Elder Bob Sam, he should have an honorary doctorate because of his work.

But Elder Bob Sam talks about Morningside, and how Morningside (Hospital in Portland, Oregon) was a very specific place that people were sent to be disposed of, either forgotten of or tidily, you know, put down.

And so that repatriation of those bodies is so important because that’s part of our story and people going missing.

Um, there was also the influence of the missionaries working in tandem with these biological effects of smallpox and influenza that I keep referring to because it’s intertwined. It’s a braided experience. They’re not separate from each other.

But the, you know, in "Chills and Fevers," is -- it is a book, and it talks about how the missionaries withheld vaccines until medicine people converted to Christianity.

And that was their logical argument that their god was more powerful than our belief system, because their medicine was more powerful than the medicine person’s medicine.

Which it’s challenging, because if you think about the way that medicine was done, everything happened really quickly. You know, like, you could have a community that was fine, who didn’t even have contact, but then had the contact to the virus through, you know, vectors of different means that traveled faster than the missionaries or the military or the explorers or the traders.

And so, you could lose a whole community, 90 percent to a whole community, without them ever even actually having contact. Um, so they were able to show that their medicine was more powerful, and then there was that option to change over or basically go missing.

And so, at that time, our medicine traditions, they were disrupted in their overt or public way.

And because this is for our long-term knowledge base, what I want to say is, one of the challenges that we’re facing is that a term, we’ll just say bad medicine, right, dark medicine. And dark’s not even the right term, because traditionally nighttime or dark was not bad.

Um, so the concept of bad is associated with manipulation of people for gain without empathy or -- or um, just reason.

And so, bad medicine, since it was already underground, continued to exist underground in its full context. And then handed down, you know, from apprentice to -- or from, you know, practitioner to apprentice.

And so, a lot of people associated our traditional medicine with the, you know, bad medicine practices, and it was also said that our traditional medicine was evil by the missionaries, which then was this, like, perpetuating concept that fulfilled itself.

And we have our people who are practitioners, good medicine or neutral medicine, and they -- what they did was either they stopped all the way, or they bifurcated their knowledge.

They handed out packets of knowledge to different people in the family that was not whole. And it was very intentional.

And I’ve heard about this as a strategy, actually, in multiple communities throughout the state, that knowledge was given segmented, because any one person having a full body of knowledge, it actually put them at risk, and they were afraid.

I don’t let this -- early on in my career when I started speaking and working as a traditional healer and using the titles traditional healer, I actually got a lot of pushback from people in the community because they would say, you can’t call yourself that. And if you call yourself that, then you’re not really that.

And there’s a lot of mixing that happens. You know, like I said, you have to understand who -- what frame of lexicon or terminology that people are working from.

’Cause some people think that traditional healer means actual, full-fledged medicine person. Um, ixt, right? Not realizing it’s this kind of broad terminology like doctor.

And there -- that’s one. And then the other part of it is, you know, that traditionally, you didn’t have to say who you were, because if you were really the thing that you were, then the whole community would know anyways.

You were the person that they would go see for, you know, herbal work or body work or being the intermediary. Like, it was just your station that you didn’t have to go and announce yourself as being that thing.

And then the other dynamics that are in play is the concept of Christianity and humility, almost to the point of self-deprecation, right? So being austerely humble as Jesus was.

Um, and if you look at Jesus through an Indigenous lens, he was a very powerful medicine person that did great works, and his -- he didn’t have to say who he was because his work announced who he was, right? It was not challenged.

And so that’s -- that's ok in that concept, but it doesn’t apply to people working under a traditional healer, right, the doctor title.

And then another aspect was that -- what we were just speaking about in the concept before this, is people being taken out and murdered. So there’s that fear that if you stand up and identify yourself, that you will have a target on your back.

And I literally had Elders say, you will now have a target on your back. And I have Elders who said that in -- in snide ways.

And I’ve had Elders who said that and -- but know what I’m doing, and so they pray for me. And they've prayed for me on a regular basis over the ten years, twelve -- well actually, it’s been longer than that.

Um, I don’t even -- what are we, 2022. I started -- like it’s about like twelve years, um, openly being this -- Making that commitment to being a traditional healer.

Um, and they continually pray for me now to this day so that I can continue my work in the community. Because we don’t operate off of an individual ego-based structure where you and you alone are strong enough to do all these things, and you conquer everything. That’s not a traditional concept.

The traditional concept is that matrilineal egalitarian, where we support each other in those networks as we -- we come together, it’s like a raft. Or a system that helps to elevate each other as we move up. Or it can bring us down as a group, as well.

Um, so, this rematriation of traditional healing has not been an easy one. And, you know, Jennifer and I are able to operate at the way that -- the level that we operate on because our Elders held that space.

You know, Karen Brooks held that space as a traditional healer. Dr. Rita Blumenstein held that space as a traditional healer. Della Keats held that space as a traditional healer. Alicia Roberts was a known healer in the community.

And others. You know, many others who faced the criticism, sometimes ridicule, bullying, were ostracized, who were put down, you know, through the process of colonization and lateral violence and shame.

Um, they were generally not well-compensated many times and lived in a lot of poverty. And they had their own issues.

You know, we’re all living in a colonized process and perspective, we do not have the fully formed communal structures that would’ve supported us. So there’s all the dysfunctions that come along with that. But then still have to operate in this way of being.

And they did that. And that is honorable and brave and heroic, really, to be able to stand out in that way that allows us to more freely operate as traditional healers, even though there was that initial pushback and then also, um, you know, that continued lateral violence that occurs and unreasonable standards.

I think that’s part of the hardest one is the expectation that you’re perfect in a Christ-like manner, when many of us have been through the same thing as everybody else. We have ACEs, you know, the Adverse Childhood Effects scores. And some of us, you know, even have ten out of ten, and we’re still doing our healing work simultaneously as teaching and helping our -- our fellow humans to do healing work.

And in that vein, I almost visualize like this rebel ragtag band of people who have survived hundreds of years of intentional colonization and assimilation, who are tattered and scarred, um, you know, coming out of this and doing the work.

And then the generations after us will be able to do the work without that trauma load that we have experienced ourselves. Um, yeah, so there we go. There’s -- there's a good intro.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. That’s important history that you’ve consolidated. We could go into that. A book could be written, many books, and thank you for bringing that together.

I’d like to talk a little bit about your weaving of traditional agricultural methods with -- such as the potato project you’ve been working on, and this push towards agriculture as we face climate change.

MEDA DEWITT: Yeah, thank you. Um, well, climate change is a reality, as we know, and even, you know, seven years ago, six years ago, it wasn’t common knowledge, like that veil had not been pierced into the -- the illusion that we carry as Americans or in advanced Western cultures.

There was an intentional, um -- I guess illusion's just the best way to say. There was an intentional illusion that capitalism and consumerism and this process of growing economies exponentially was sustainable. And we knew at contact that it was not sustainable.

You know, doc -- Wilson Justin, he talks about how the Elders said at contact, you know, that’s when we went out of balance.

That’s when climate change started, because our relationships with the plants and the animals and the spiritual world and each other went out of balance. So this is a very predictable outcome in an Indigenous lens.

But in a Western patriarchal, ego-based lens, you know, it was something that’s being ignored or swept under the rug intentionally in the collective consciousness, because it’s something that they didn’t want to believe and felt that if they, you know, if I don’t see you, you can’t see me, um, kind of thinking.

So, as we move forward, there’s a lot of things that have to be done. Our traditional medicine and story people, they’ve said before even I was born, and the medicine people even now, that the way to make it through these events is through holding onto each other, taking care of each other, and stewarding the land.

And that’s both forward thinking, intermediate thinking, and past thinking, because our timeline traditionally was not linear. It’s circular, cyclical, and building on itself.

And in this concept, we’ve had climate change before. You know, many of our people have been here well over ten thousand years, and even over twenty thousand years, and some even have stories that go back to, you know, saber-toothed tigers.

So there’s this knowledge that the climate does change. There’s also this knowledge that the environment is going to be out of balance, and it’s going to result in crashing populations of plants and animals and humans and mass disruption of this harmony.

So the working with plants as food and medicine and the cultivation of plants stems from that knowledge. And also that concept of being able to work from a place of, um, control or autonomy.

And not that we can control the whole system, but we can control what is around us. We are the influencers in our own life.

So the traditional way of being was cultivating natural systems to increase and augment abundance. And that abundance helped to feed the plants, the animals, the insects, the birds, the fish, and humans, as well as creating enough abundance for trade outside of our spaces. And that trade and the abundance sharing creates overlapping circles of distribution.

So if you think of traditional economy, they’re overlapping circles of distribution, and sharing of goods and services that may not be available in your space.

So for instance, Interior areas have less access to high-grade oils. The coast has an abundance to high-grade marine oils. So we had thousands of miles in Shinga'aani (sp?) of grease trails where we carried bentwood boxes of rendered eulachon grease or rendered seal grease or other fats interior that we would trade for other things, right.

But that occurred because there was enough fish population, there was enough food for the people there, everybody was cared for and then -- then traded inland.

So our plants are significant. Dr. Rita Blumenstein talked about how as climate changes, our plants are going to change with it, and we’re going to have to start adapting plants from ecoregions below us and bringing them into spaces where we’re at.

And it’s important that our medicine people or our traditional healers communicate to each other and find out what are the cornerstone species. Which ones are the -- the cornerstone relatives to the other plants and animals that have to be brought into that space. But that also play well, which means that they’re not super invasive that’s going to take over a space.

And that is a traditional construct of sharing knowledge. Our medicine people had a currency of sharing knowledge with each other.

Intellectual property had more value pre-contact. Our songs, our stories, our crests, our medicine knowledge, it all carried value.

And our medicine people, that was part of their exchange was knowledge and planting of plants and use of plant medicine. And we augmented and stewarded natural systems.

So for us, if we’re operating on that wisdom that is cyclical and works in these cycles and has worked before, then we carry it forward to work now, and we share with people so it can also work again in the future.

And by propagating specific plants, we increase the amount of food that’s available. Right now we have a lot of people who are enthusiasts who want natural high-grade plants for their health benefits and for their food benefits.

And people wild-harvest, which is beautiful. However, we have seven and a half billion people on the planet. If we all go out and wild harvest right now, we will extinguish those plant populations around our population bases and around the world. We’ll basically create a -- a collapse in those ecosystems.

And we’re seeing it here in Alaska, people, you know, not harvesting bull kelp correctly. They pull it out by the roots. Then all of a sudden, guess what? The bull kelp is gone.

Um, you know, people harvesting devil’s club, the full stalk and the rhizome roots. And they may take the mother stock. And if you take the mother stock, the whole colony dies, right? Every single plant has its roles.

And by propagating them with intention, then you’re increasing the amount that’s available and filling that desire for those specific foods.

And by propagating them intentionally in our yards, two things happen. One, you’re not -- you’re replacing the invasives or the other plants that would hold those spaces that are perennials that just look nice. Or annuals that just look nice, but don’t serve a purpose. So you’re increasing the indigenous plant population in the yards. And it helps to support indigenous pollinators.

One of the challenges that we’re looking at is the collapse of the honeybee. The honeybee is adorable and fuzzy and I love it. I’d like it to stay around. But it is something that has come from Europe that was brought to the United States, and it displaced our indigenous pollinators.

So once the -- when the honeybee population collapsed, because it’s a monoculture, right? It’s just one large body of -- of production without a lot of genetic variation, and they live in colonies that then get mites, are affected by pesticides, viruses, molds, everything can affect them.

If that crashes, then we lose our pollination system because our indigenous pollinators have been pushed out. So by propagating indigenous plants, you’re helping to support the indigenous pollinators.

And so, that’s, you know, the level of -- of the ecosystem. You’re increasing and safeguarding what’s there. You’re providing more nutrients to humans who want to increase their health and get closer to nature. You’re supporting the insects and the natural pollinators. You’re also helping to support the local animal stock.

I mean, we have things, for instance, like chokecherries or Mayday trees. Those are poisonous to moose. And not only are they in our communities, they’re starting to wild-propagate out in nature, because birds eat the berries and then poop ’em out, you know, in the forest.

And so, our moose populations are detrimentally affected by these invasive plants. And so forth.

Every -- you know, we have the DOT brought in bird vetch, and right now we have bird vetch that are choking out all sorts of our plants along roadsides and banks.

And the problem with that is those plants help to safeguard against erosion. They also help to filter the water that travels through that space. And they also help to capture dust so that dust doesn’t get into forests. Along with the -- the other benefits that we talked about.

So by propagating these things, we’re anchoring ourself into a space. And this is for future generations, but I was watching that, um, movie with, oh gosh, what’s his name. Its' -- He goes to Mars, and he plants potatoes, and he cites some crazy law that if you plant agrarian plants in a place, then that’s a way of claiming that you have discovered and you are now anchored in a space, and that you now own that space.

And at that point, I decided that I’m going to plant plants everywhere. So I have plants in spaces that have been, you know --

I worked with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and the Alaska Native, um, hospital. And we had Kelly Ballantyne who was doing a master’s degree with APU (Alaska Pacific University), and he wanted to put in a traditional plant garden in the courtyard, but he didn’t have all the traditional plants, and I did.

So I got to plant plants in the courtyard, in the heart of our Alaska Native hospital here in Anchorage. And I’ve been able to plant plants at APU, in places for UAA (University of Alaska Anchorage). I’ve planted plants down at the old IHS (Indian Health Service) hospital.

I have a traditional garden that we put in with the Alaska Native Heritage Center. And sent seeds all over the state, and helped to even provide plants for traditional activities, like culture camps.

So Monty Rogers does culture camps, and he’s non-Native, but he’s an anthropologist and he has enough knowledge, and he works as a good relative. So a lot of tribes actually hire him.

And so, he needed masu or Indian potato root, Hedysarum alpinum. And I had some. I had enough that he could do a traditional cache and storage. And so, learning those traditional activities actually requires having the traditional plants, as well.

And maintaining our history, the -- you might reference the Tlingit potato. So there’s -- there's two items that have that connotation. One is the Hedysarum alpinum, which is the -- the root. Some people call it Indian potato. That is a root that’s found in the wild all over that’s cultivated.

And then there is the ozette, Tlingit and Haida potato. And that was actually traded for all the way down into Central America. It never went to Spain. It never went to Europe. Nowhere else. It was traded for straight down the coast up and into Lingít Aaní.

And that has been cultivated for at minimum 800 years in Southcentral -- or Southeast Alaska. And it almost went away, but they found it in a couple of gardens.

One is called Maria’s potatoes, so Maria from Kasaan, she had some. And then Nora Dauenhauer, the Dauenhauers’ garden had some. My friend Steve Johnson, his family had some in -- in a traditional plot in Southeast.

I also got some potatoes from Eleanor Hadden. I actually got potatoes from Steve Johnson and Eleanor Hadden. And started propagating them here.

And now, you know, I just got a handful of potatoes, and now I have a toteful of potatoes and enough to cut up and do a small plot, you know, maybe even like a quarter of an acre of potatoes.

Simultaneously, there’s other people who are seeing that it can be done, and they've been planting them, as well. Watching, you know, Southeast -- The Sitka School District planted them already. So everybody’s watching people in Southeast, and then they’re trying them out here.

Um, and, you know, Southeast has been revitalizing them, probably for eight years at minimum, or ten years, from that really -- that collective knowledge that they exist to -- to full propagation. And then up here, it’s now been just the last couple of years that we’ve brought them into Southcentral area.

So it’s this collective movement of revitalizing traditional plants as food and medicine. We’re not going to get rid of the agrarian plants that we use predominantly in our stores, because they’re just such high-yield things, you know. The amount of root vegetables you can get from carrots and turnips and, you know, all those different plants are considerable. And they help to feed large populations, so I don’t think that we should get rid of those.

But I do think that everybody should be growing these foods and medicines in their gardens and learning the knowledge associated with them. That is -- and share it with our non-Native relatives.

You know, that’s part of this adaptation and survival is helping to impart this idea of what it means to be Indigenous to the non-Indigenous people, because that is imparting how to be in right relationship with the land and the community.

Um, and there’s, you know, some hard translation, because some people see culture just as the physical representation of culture, just the clothes, the songs, the dances, the things that you can see, and not understanding that the deeper roots of culture, the values and protocols are what’s needing to have that uptake in these larger groups and communities.

And I think that learning the local language, even by non-Native people, like, whatever land you’re on, helping to learn some of that local language is really important, 'cause then it helps to start frame -- framing this world view of the traditional Indigenous people. And in a way that’s not co-opting, but in a way that’s helping to support and perpetuating that relationship.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. We’re on a journey of reclaiming, revitalizing, indigenizing. What are some resources that you’d like to share for those who are seeking connection to plant knowledge, to traditional ecological knowledge?

MEDA DEWITT: Oh goodness, that’s a good question, and it’s very broad. I would say that for the people who are listening to this, look locally. You know, what is the tribe doing, and can you volunteer and support those efforts?

There’s also different books available, and now there’s more Indigenous people writing books about plant medicine. There was a period of time where all the books we had were just written by non-Native people who collected Native knowledge.

And so, supporting that the books that are written from Indigenous perspective is really important, as well as, I love that they helped catalog traditional knowledge. You know, some of those books are the first books that I read.

Um, there’s a lot of things going on in the Internet, but I would say spending time with Elders, having tea with Elders, doing yard work for Elders.

Spending time with Elders, which is our -- our living libraries, is very important, 'cause it helps to honor that tradition, and -- and in that end of life, that’s when you’re the developmental stage when you’re sharing story and knowledge and passing things on.

Um, that -- that was a big part of my learning, was spending time with my grandpa. You know, Ralph (inaudible ??), II, and spending time with Dr. Rita Blumenstein.

And spending time with other Elders in the communities, you know, is -- is how I gained some of the most significant knowledge that I get to use.

Then I augment it with the books, with the, um, college, you know, educational system, with the Internet, with videos.

And one of the ways that I work, and I suggest people find their own, their -- some version of this, is Indigenous research.

So right now we have story, which Jennifer Andrulli is an ethnoresearcher and cataloging this information that’s really valuable, but also, like, helps a person learn as they go through it.

And then spending time with real people, living people that can impart wisdom. Because there’s knowledge, but then there’s also that knowledge applied in real context, which creates wisdom.

And then doing the lit reviews. And when you’re reading those texts that were written by explorers, you have to remember the frame or filter that is on those texts.

So remember that there’s patriarchy, remember that there’s colonization, remember that there’s religion, remember that there is also the lack of scientific or empirical knowledge.

Um, for instance, there was one researcher I was reading, and he was talking about Tlingit taboos. And the taboos that we had, and these, you know, we have these scratchers, and these -- the personal scratchers are to scratch an itch. And it does two things. One, you have to intentionally be conscious of your body and in your body and connection to know that you have an itch to be scratched.

And so instead of just like, mindlessly scratching something, you have your scratcher and you scratch it. That’s one. That’s part of that internal discipline.

Two, we also didn’t have regular running water in the house. And so, you know, by scratching, you can actually infect your skin. And I’ve read some things by Elders talking about introducing, you know, bad spirits into the skin.

But it’s a weird translation, because that bad spirit meant virus, bacteria, right? Like that’s what they meant when they were talking about it, but the explorer wrote it off as taboos.

And it really bothered me. And at the time I was in nursing classes, and I had realized that in Europe, they understood the vector of disease and transmission, because they were working on cadavers in the hospitals in the basement.

And then they were going up to the second floor and delivering babies. And so, they were working on dead people, and then they were putting their hands, you know, in the vagina of these women having -- in labor, and delivering babies.

And there was this high rate of death of women from birth, you know, from child -- or infection. And they didn’t even use the word infection. You know, like, they got fevers and -- and died.

And so, at that time, one of the doctors had realized that the ones who had -- the doctors who had washed their hands after working on cadavers and delivering babies had less death rate than the ones who didn’t.

And so, they realized this case study analysis, and so made it -- implemented that everybody had to wash their hands after working on the cadavers and then delivering the babies.

And that’s within, like, a ten-year time period after this explorer wrote, you know, these taboos of not scratching your skin, or -- or, you know, like these hygiene practices that we had that he labeled as taboos.

So that’s a framework that you have to realize that you’re reading these through. So you add that with living knowledge, science, research, and um, these accounts, and then you can build, you know, a more rounded view and model of the information in context.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: I’d like you to list a few of the keystone plants, without going into detail. This is the last question, and we just have a few more minutes, and so this will be research for anyone in the future listening to our conversation.

Keystone plants for Southcentral Alaska.

MEDA DEWITT: That we should move into Southcentral Alaska or that live in Southcentral Alaska? JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Either.

MEDA DEWITT: Ok, so it’s a boreal forest, and the black spruce is a keystone plant for the boreal forest.

However, with climate change it’s becoming too -- too warm, and we don’t have our traditional burning. So that’s something that we need to actively steward to help protect in this space.

Another keystone plant, I was going to say one other one, but I keep seeing this picture, is valerian. Valerian loves to live in Southcentral and is incredibly important in reducing anxiety and helping to aid in negotiations or peace talks. It also helps with sleep. And so, valerian is a keystone species.

We also have Artemisia tilesii. That’s a keystone species. It’s a panacea for healing and health and wellness for people.

I also say willow. And I don’t know why I’m keeping this to four, because there’s many, many more, but willow is an important food source for many of the herbivores that live in and around Southcentral Alaska. So, it’s also part of the salix family, and has salicylic acid in it, which is the -- the original aspirin.

So all of those are used for medicine. Some of those are used for food. And some of those can be used for food and medicine and textiles and tools.

I would say another keystone plant would be nettle. And I know I said four, but just kinda rounding out that -- that plant family, because nettle is a textile, and as well as medicine and food. And it can actually be eaten by itself if you had to survive off of it. It’s a full protein.

So we have, I think those plants right there, even if that’s all that you worked with, you would cover most of the needs in the community.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. And any final words?

MEDA DEWITT: Uh, we are here to be good relatives, to take care of each other, and to steward the land. But that also means taking care of ourselves and being responsible for our spiritual journey.

We’re facing existential crisis of going extinct, and the way through it is by culminating as a human identity and collective and family, and working as a -- our larger tribe or community to make our way through this.

And I’m hoping that you’re listening to this in a hundred years, and that we’ve made it through, and that our future is bright and abundant.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Mm. Quyana. MEDA DEWITT: Mm. Gunalchéesh.