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Della Keats
Della Keats

Della Keats was interviewed by Joanne Mulcahy on October 11, 1980 at the Regional Women's Conference in Bethel, Alaska. In this interview, Della talks about how she learned to do traditional healing, her use of stinkweed and a poker for treating aliments, and the work of midwives in the villages. She also discusses the traditional practice of giving birth in a small hut separate from the house.

This recording was edited for sound quality and redundancy. A PDF of a more complete transcript of the original full recording is available.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 93-01-31

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Oct 11, 1980
Narrator(s): Della Keats
Interviewer(s): Joanne Mulcahy
Transcriber: Karen Brewster, Gloria Bodnar
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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Learning from books

Before there were doctors, and how women had babies and tied the umbilical cord

Being born in a moss hut separate from the house

Healing people

Missionaries and teachers acting as doctors in the early days

Traditional medicine and use of stinkweed

Funeral and burial

Midwives in the villages

Being careful to use traditional medicines and plants properly

Use of a poke to treat ailments

Traveling to villages as a traditional doctor, and teaching young people how to do traditional healing

Information about the interview

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


JOANNE MULCAHY: Bethel Regional Women's Conference talking with Della Keats, an Eskimo doctor and healer who was here to conduct some sessions. And she's agreed to talk with me about her life.

Della, do you -- do you consider yourself a doctor or a healing person? Or how would you describe your role in the villages?

DELLA KEATS: Well, I never thought that I would be a -- a doctor for all the villages in my young -- teenage --

And I'm always proud of the books, what I have when I'm in school, about a physical. And some parts that was interested to me, I put it in my mind. I never write it down. JOANNE MULCAHY: Really? DELLA KEATS: Really.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Just remembered everything?

DELLA KEATS: I didn't remember everything in the book. But the ones that's so interested that I really need, I put it in my mind.

And when it's happened to the people, the way what I read from the book, I try to help them. And help them. Make them good. JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm.

DELLA KEATS: That's why I was so proud of the books, what I have when I was in school. And I start to help -- starting to help all the people just like me. Ever since, even when I was a child trying to follow the books, how to help them when -- whey they -- like, when they're really cut and losing blood on some things.

And these are the ones that I always work on the people right now. Just by my own experience, what I do it myself, what I help myself.

And when people complain about it, they think that he's -- he's hurting, complain about it, what his wrong with him. And when he do the same way, what I did, like, I do this and get good myself. Try to help him.

JOANNE MULCAHY: So you do a lot of your own healing? DELLA KEATS: Yes.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Well, when you -- you say that you learned some things from books and remembered them even though you didn't write them down, was there another doctor in your community, in the village where you grew up, a healing woman like yourself that you learned from?


DELLA KEATS: No, I never see any. If I knew, I would go over and ask about everything JOANNE MULCAHY: It would be easier that way

DELLA KEATS: 'Cause when I don't know, do they -- people from long ago, in early days, these people helping themselves or what they do or what kind of herbs they use and how did they get good? I always ask my folks, my parents, not to somebody.

But the numbers in Eskimo, I've learned them from another old man. That's the only one I asked. One old man and learned the Eskimo numbers.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Uh-huh. What did your parents say about --? What did your mother say about how she was healed? Did she heal herself when something went wrong, if there was no doctor?

DELLA KEATS: There was no doctors. There was nothing. And, you know, she never get really bad to get so ill in their family. But the way, when she start having baby, how do the -- I asked her how do they tie it with what they cut the cord, and which one they put the clothes on or van to the belly?

And what kind of string they tie on a cord of baby. How do you keep it warm? Things like that, I always ask. And it was she telling me the way when I was born.

JOANNE MULCAHY: She told you what happened when you were born?

DELLA KEATS: Yeah. How to do -- how to help me. Like, how did you tie my belly? JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm. That's right. Yeah.

DELLA KEATS: Yeah. I opened my belly and show it to her. How did you open --? I mean, tied my belly? And she told me with sinew -- back sinew of caribou.


JOANNE MULCAHY: Did she have someone to help her, too?

DELLA KEATS: Nobody helped. They fall along. She having her baby. JOANNE MULCAHY: Really?

DELLA KEATS: Me. I was born in a small hut, small hut. In the falltime, when she was pregnant, my daddy gathered all the moss around there when my mother going to have a baby so -- so he could make a little hut enough for her.

'Cause they always stay away from the house and have their baby and stay there for four days. A woman.


DELLA KEATS: Really. Not in their home.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Oh, I didn't know that.

DELLA KEATS: No stove. And daddy made a little moss hut when she start having labor.

She put on floor with willows. Covered mud with willows and put a lot of -- two, three skins of caribou skins in it.

Enough -- enough to make having a baby enough to sleep.

JOANNE MULCAHY: To lay on? DELLA KEATS: To lay on.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Was there a reason why you didn't have your baby in your house?

DELLA KEATS: If you -- if you have a baby right there around them folks, the people in there in the house will die. If you -- That's just because you bleeding. JOANNE MULCAHY: Oh, I see.

DELLA KEATS: That's why. Tried to save these people. JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm.

DELLA KEATS: And my mother -- my father, heating the rocks. Let them, you know, hot. They -- they really get hot and hold the rock, put -- put sticks on by the door, and put the rocks in there for -- for heat.

The first one didn't make it warm that little hut already. The second one make it more hot. He had to watch these rocks. My own dad, when she was labor.

JOANNE MULCAHY: To make sure they stay hot.

DELLA KEATS: Hm-mm. She don't want to have me in a cold little hut there. I was born in January 15th, 1907. (Section deleted due to poor audio quality making it impossible to hear what is being said.)

DELLA KEATS: The doctors called me to go down and try to help these people. So I did.

And after I work on 'em not too long, this young fellow, the youngest one. "Tomorrow," he said -- He talked to these other spring back patients.

"First time I ever see -- I ever knew a doctor that could heal right away. I'm getting good now. I'm getting good. Off and on, I used to go to hospital and it's hurt. And right now, it doesn't hurt no more. I'm discharged from the hospital."

JOANNE MULCAHY: Really, that's what he said?

DELLA KEATS: That's what he say. And he never even ever go back to hospital. Even the doctors told me.

That young fellow what I worked never come back. He used to come off and on to the hospital for his back. And ever since, he never go to the hospital no more. He healed up.

JOANNE MULCAHY: When you were young in the village that you lived in, were there missionaries there? DELLA KEATS: What anything?

JOANNE MULCAHY: Did the miss -- Were there missionaries, church people?

DELLA KEATS: Yes. Was there.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Were in the village? What kind of people were they?



DELLA KEATS: They called it Friends. JOANNE MULCAHY: That's right, the Friends.

DELLA KEATS: Hm-mm. They were there. No, these teachers were the missionaries. Same time talking to people same time.

And later on, after eight years of missionaries came. Two of them.

And I was born 1907. After I -- after I was born, after I was six years old. When I'm six years old, I go to school.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm. Is that a Quaker school? DELLA KEATS: Yeah, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Did they help you or were there doctors that came with them?

DELLA KEATS: No, no. The teachers taking care of the medicine whenever the people get sick.

I don't know when he -- the teacher, this teacher, a man giving it out the medicine for the people that's sick. I don't know. I won't tell. I don't know, 'cause --

JOANNE MULCAHY: You're not sure? DELLA KEATS: Hm-mm.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Do you think that there are a lot of the old ways when you include and other things, do you think that they were better than the modern medicines or do you think it's --? How do you feel about those?

DELLA KEATS: When they really need it. Not, you know, just like a lump or that make a lump inside itself out of intestine. Grow itself there. It -- it doesn't help too quick or right, but help sometimes.

And when they have a stomach problem from intestines or stomach or large intestine, you know, it helps to the boil even. And for pneumonia it's really good.

I got pneumonia myself and I drink half a glass three times a day just like you having a pill. By the time. I watch the time and drink half a glass of stinkweed. That's the only things.

I have medicine, cough medicine from doctors doesn't help. But when I start drinking with stinkweed, by the time, every four hours, I start getting good.

And it's really good for TB. I know before that -- long time ago, I have one lady that was having a TB. Spitting, you know, all the time. And I boiled stinkweed. Getting strong. And by the time every -- every three hours, four times a day, I give 'em one tablespoon a day. I mean every -- every three hours in a day. Every three hours, four times a day.

And she get good. She heal up and get fat.

I stayed down in Kotzebue and tried to help her. Tried to -- people was telling me that I will catch from her. TB. But I never scared. I never scared nothing.

I stayed with them and help her. And she get good, and she get up from the bed. Could do something.

And when she -- the last time -- she began to drink back again. She died from that. She started back and she start liquor.

They not taking care of herself anymore. She died from it. Not really old. JOANNE MULCAHY: Really? DELLA KEATS: Maybe around 50?

JOANNE MULCAHY: What -- what kind of things do they do for a funeral after a friend dies? What kind of a family -- do they have an agreement?

DELLA KEATS: No, they have to bury them right now. Long time ago, they used to have family handling the one they lost themselves. And right now, everybody tried to help these people. The one that lost their loved ones.

Right now, it's better. And a lot of people -- a lot of men have to dig and making a box for them until they buried. Right now.

JOANNE MULCAHY: When you had your children, was there a midwife there to help you in the village?

DELLA KEATS: No, just two. I have the oldest one and the next one. I have with no -- no midwife. Just my sister-in-law. But these two, the midwives helping me.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Are there still midwives in the villages?

DELLA KEATS: They're still having now. There're still midwives. Yeah. I could help anytime, too. When people going to have a -- woman going to have a baby, I could help.

JOANNE MULCAHY: And are there other women in the village that learn from you about how you use herbs like stinkweed?

DELLA KEATS: Yeah, they're learning. I used to tell them. I used to tell them to use this and that, but not too much. They get overdose.

One lady almost get overdosed, 'cause she -- she really want to get good right away. And she have one gallon a day. That's too much. Almost get overdose. She get dizzy.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Yeah. She tried to get cured too fast.

DELLA KEATS: Hm-mm. She don't know about it. Don't you ever drink that much. Just have glass and a half a day. That's only thing. Time the hours you should use it.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Did you also use any kind of rocks to let out blood or things like that to help people that had problems?

DELLA KEATS: Well, I have a poke. I leave it this time. I used to take it along. I'm afraid the kids might play with it and poke themselves. I used to take it along, but I leave it right now.

Just a little blade. Axe blade. Axe off. But the point -- but a little nail to open the puss in people's --

I save a lot of people from puss, you know, because infections and boils with that.

And one time -- 'cause people always scared that the doctors hate that poke. Not to open people just for nothing. I hate to. JOANNE MULCAHY: Yeah.

DELLA KEATS: Without nothing, without seeing if -- if -- if it's not infect -- no need to open it.

But when it's infection, you know, when it have a puss, the puss can't open the skin. That's the only time I use it. I always open it. Even a boil. I use that right now, even.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Do you ever use it to make the skin bleed? To let the blood out?

DELLA KEATS: Not on the body. I hate to use it on the body. Just for the head. When some people having headache, when they want me to, I hate to ask them and poke them myself. Unless themselves. JOANNE MULCAHY: They ask you?

DELLA KEATS: Ask me. I hate to do it. I can't touch this person without he asking me.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm. Yeah, I think that must be important. DELLA KEATS: Yeah. He dreaming good.

JOANNE MULCAHY: I wondered about that because I have read -- Where I live in Kodiak, sometimes the women there would use like a poke for back problems and things.

DELLA KEATS: No way. 'Cause they don't know how to fix the spring back to help it. In all the days, they always do like that.


DELLA KEATS: Yeah. In older days when they hurt, when it's hurting, when you let it bleed, maybe it will get good. It will get good. So then they poke it someplace, even though it's not swollen. It's not bluey or kind of having a puss.

I hate that. I never do it. I never use it.

That's when they have a -- when I know that they have a puss to open it. That's the only time. When they have a really headache.

I tell them this about to the doctor. I always -- when people ask, I always open it, poke it with my old -- that mixed with axe saw.

But I have to careful. Clean it off. And he want me to -- he want to give me some equipment to open a (inaudible).

This doctor and I -- I tell them if they're too dull for me, I can't cut and operate people. But this poker thing, that's the only thing I use.

JOANNE MULCAHY: So you don't do any operating? DELLA KEATS: No. JOANNE MULCAHY: You use massage?

DELLA KEATS: But when somebody sliver, a big sliver on their hands, I used to cut it and take it off.

JOANNE MULCAHY: Hm-mm. I see. So you -- now you still go to the different villages?

DELLA KEATS: Different villages. Right now, I've trained three ladies. I'm scared if I lost everything, what I do, it might lost. And I teaching two -- two young girls and one man.


DELLA KEATS: Two women. Yeah, young adults and one man. And they're helping me. Real lot. They learn from me. I'm teach them how.

This man especially, he always give me a question when he don't know something.

I have a workshop for them last year. Alone. JOANNE MULCAHY: Really?

DELLA KEATS: Hm-mm. And teach them how they should do.

JOANNE MULCAHY: When you go -- when you have gone to different villages in this area, they didn't have anyone else there that was a medical person like you? No men, no women?

DELLA KEATS: I never look, because I don't know people. I don't know people.

A few ones I know them all right. Some people never try to show them -- themselves to me, you know. That's why I always told them.

Even I don't know you before just now you's -- you telling here, you show it to me yourself, and I know you right now. See, like that.

JOANNE MULCAHY: This interview with Della Keats was recorded on October 11th, 1980 at the Regional Women's Conference held in Bethel, Alaska and sponsored by the Tundra Women's Coalition and Native Women of Calista and the Association of Village Council Presidents.

Monies were received from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Alaska Commission on the Status of Women.

This conversation was with Della Keats, who was an Eskimo doctor. Born in April, 1907 in Noatak, Alaska. She's now employed by Maniilaq, the Kotzebue area Native health corporation as the tribal health doctor. She works with the doctors and travels through the villages.

An accompanying paper by Sandra Jewel called "Portrait of an Eskimo Tribal Health Doctor," explains in further detail how Della heals, what methods she uses, and how she's passing this on to the village health aides.

Sandra's paper was made possible by a grant from the University of Washington and in conjunction with the University of Alaska. (Rest of audio deleted due to poor audio quality making it impossible to hear what is being said.)