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Harvesting plants for food and medicine grows our culture, tradition and health

August 2, 2018

Alaskan plants as food and medicine – Benefits of the fall harvest
Alaska Native people have lived in harmony with living things for thousands of years, including our traditional plants. This is the time of the year when our many varieties of berries become ready to pick. Berries and plants harvested in the fall provide an abundance of high-quality nutrients.

“Our Alaskan berries are full of fiber and antioxidants like Vitamin C, that help keep our bodies healthy,” Marcia Anderson, ANTHC Health Promotion Manager, said. “And their sweet, delightful flavors make a wonderful addition to a variety of recipes. Berries can be made into jams, jellies, fruit leathers, sauces, and desserts.”

Along with the berry bounty, fall is a good time of the year to pick yarrow for the dried flowers, stems and leaves to make healing salves. In her book “Tanaina Plantlore,” author Priscilla Russell writes, “dry powdered flowers of yarrow were drank as a tea for sore throats or used as a gargle. Additionally, the tea would be mixed with highbush cranberry juice and used as a cough syrup.”

There are social benefits to the fall harvest. It’s a great time for our families to come together and share traditions.

“Building a relationship with plants teaches our children to be active, to respect, and engage with our environment, engage in our culture, keeping traditions alive,” Anderson said.

Symposiums for plants as food and medicine
With the import of commercial foods and the increased reliance on store-bought groceries, our knowledge, skills and practice of Alaskan plants as food and medicine can be in jeopardy. At the recommendations of Tribal health organizations with the input from Elders, ANTHC Wellness and Prevention began hosting annual educational symposia on Alaskan Plants as Food and Medicine in 2012. ANTHC has transitioned to a regional support model for Alaskan Plants as Food and Medicine symposiums.

These events create an opportunity for collaboration, networking and sharing valuable traditional plant knowledge throughout Alaska. Each region is diverse with its own indigenous plant knowledge, Elders, traditional healers and other natural resource professionals such as botanists. At the symposiums, groups are able to collaborate and partner collectively to promote discussion, education and increase practical skills related to Alaskan plants as food and medicine use. Activities and discussion include hands-on classes, plant walks, ethical plant harvesting and Elder knowledge.

In 2017, ANTHC collaborated on three symposia across the state drawing more than 275 attendees. The Interior Plants as Food and Medicine symposium was hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Kuskokwim Campus’ Elitelta Naunranek: Let’s Study Plants program in Fairbanks in partnership with the Tanana Chiefs Conference and ANTHC. Niqipiat Nigikkavut, Traditional Foods That We Eat symposium was hosted in Kotzebue by Maniilaq Association’s Office of Environmental Health. Nudnelyahi Qudulyi: Dena’ina Plants as Food and Medicine Conference in Kenai was hosted by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, in partnership with CIRI Foundation, ANTHC and Alaska Humanities Forum.

Two 2018 summer symposia are proceeding with a third in the works. Recently, ANTHC staff traveled to Fort Yukon to assist with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments’ Yukon Plants as Food & Medicine from July 28-29. Southcentral Foundation hosts a symposium August 1-2 at the Nuka Learning and Wellness Center on the Alaska Native Health Campus in Anchorage. ANTHC is excited about future collaborations with Norton Sound Health Corporation as discussions take place for a future Plants as Food & Medicine symposium coming soon to this region.

“If you are interested in learning more about plants, know it takes time to build your relationship with them; learn to harvest and use plants safely and ethically. Be patient. Look forward to working with plants in all of the seasons,” Anderson said. “Getting to know plants is just about learning something every day and building your familiarity, knowledge and skill a little at a time.”

For more information on upcoming symposia or using plants as traditional foods and medicine, visit:

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