Alaska's Cultures

Alaska Natives and Health
Paul Ongtooguk

Over thousands of years different Alaska Native cultures in distinct regions of the practiced a variety of ways to promote health, reduce pain and meet the challenges of life.

For example, natural medicines from many different plants were harvested. Various parts of plants were prepared by drying. These medicines were used as poultices or teas. Many of these medicines are now lost. Disease and other changes wiped out traditional healers and others who had knowledge of old health systems. As the healers and entire villages of Alaska Natives died, belief in traditional medicines was also undermined. New doctors and treatments developed for new diseases were considered to be a new shelter for life.

Between the time of contact and the 1920's Alaska Native populations were reduced by more than half. Having lost their status in the face of new diseases, traditional medicine was also further undermined by many Christian missionaries who did not distinguish between traditional medicine men and traditional shamanism. To the Christian missionaries a person who practiced traditional medicine and a shaman were the same, and both were often declared satanic believers in superstition. More traditional knowledge about healing was lost.

Some traditional plants, mixtures, teas, and hot springs continue today, but there are few people who know and understand traditional practices. In a few Alaska Native controlled health care organizations there is an attempt to combine the best of both traditional and Western medicine. One example is that traditional doctors often administered not only healing, but also encouraged patients to learn how to keep themselves healthy, mentally active and positive in their outlook as a part of their own healing. The medical profession today is returning more and more to an emphasis on holistic health.

Alaska Native health organizations represent a wider effort on the part of Alaska Native communities to try to create a new direction that combines the strengths of both traditional and modern approaches to form a new and better future direction.