Collecting elders' knowledge about herbs and medicine

By Monica Southworth
Unlaska, Alaska (AP) 7-07

For the past 20 years, Sharon Svarny-Livingston has been regathering traditional uses of native plants on Unalaska island. After repeatedly questioning the elders in the community, she has built a significant base of information.

"I'm still finding out things, it's a long process," the former co-administrator of the Qawalangin Tribe said.

Recently at the Museum of the Aleutians, the long-time resident of Unalaska brought samples of plants for the audience to smell and feel. After opening with a story where a boy's life is saved by the plants his mother carries with him, she shared her own tale of rediscovery.

When growing up, Svarny-Livingston remembers only about 200 people living on the island in the 1950s and '60s. Without modern medicine or doctors, the residents of the island were forced to use traditional medicines from plants to deal with illnesses.

Her grandmother was a midwife in the community and delivered all the babies from the time of the evacuation until 1984, but the young girl at the time never paid attention to her grandmother's routine or the contents of her little black bag.

When leaving with her military family for the East Coast in 1964, Svarny-Livingston didn't know she wasn't going to return to a nearly forgotten practice in 20 years.

"I asked the elders about the plants and their uses. They looked at me like I was crazy and told me, 'We use modern medicine now,"' Svarny-Livingston said.

"They used this knowledge for ten thousand years, I've only been gone for 20."

To remind the elders of the plants, she would go and gather plants from the hillsides and bring it to them. After crushing the plant, the smells would refresh their memories of the uses and even how to prepare treatments from the plants.

"My kids grew up using medicinal plants. At first, they were wary and hated the taste, but now they won't leave Unalaska without the plants," Svarny-Livingston said.

Svarny-Livingston tried the medicines at home, primarily using her three children as "guinea pigs."

"Plus the clinic was too expensive for me," Svarny-Livingston laughed.

Holistic healing aims to maintain a balance within the body. Plants can be used to correct problems but are not intended for emergency use.

Traditional knowledge is localized to regions and specific areas, appropriate for that region only and not all-encompassing, making Western science wary of it.

But scientists are more frequently finding that aboriginal peoples are able to offer correct diagnoses. Today, even medical schools are beginning to offer holistic healing and herbology as an alternative to prescription drugs.

"I like to pass on my knowledge. And I don't want to be dragged around the hills being asked, 'smell this,"' Svarny-Livingston laughed.

The most exciting plant for Svarny-Livingston is the yarrow plant. Yarrow grows in different subspecies all over the United States.

Mashed-up yarrow plant placed on a wound will coagulate the blood and has a natural antiseptic to keep away infection. As a tea, yarrow raises the body temperature and kills germs. Svarny-Livingston recommends this when a cold is coming on.

Yarrow used as a lip balm or lotion protects the skin from harsh sea winds, as it contains a natural heating factor.

"It's just a wispy little plant, but can be useful for so much," she said.

Svarny-Livingston was able to recover knowledge that had been misplaced but not all aspects of the culture survived. Some had to be recreated from scratch.

Svarny-Livingston described plants that would assist numbing a decaying tooth, various types of teas and a natural aspirin. Issuing warnings against using monkshood and putchki to the fair-skinned, she covered the different types of edible plants and various ways to prepare them.

During the reception for the talk, Zoya Johnson, Museum of the Aleutians director, prepared a fiddlehead pie, along with cookies and refreshments.

Unsure of intellectual property rights, Svarny-Livingston's documentation remains unpublished. She frequently gives talks to keep the information fresh.

She teaches a class about plants at the culture camp, Camp Qungaayux, put on by the Qawalangin Tribe - beginning Aug. 6 this year - and every few years, she will teach a university class.