Looking to Plants For Cultural Insight


Soviet era apartment buildings in Lavrentiya, still in use, house some of the individuals ethnobotanist Kevin Jernigan is interviewing in his comparative study. Photo: Kevin Jernigan When ethnobotanist Kevin Jernigan traveled to the Russian Far East this summer to launch a comparative study on the medical ethnobotany of two related but separate Arctic cultures, he went with an ambitious goal: to better understand the relative importance of older cultural connections versus more recent influence by the dominant cultures of each country.

Pictured here are traditional remnants of stone houses in Naukan. Photo: Kevin Jernigan

To that end, Jernigan was comparing whether there are more similarities in medical beliefs between two societies speaking similar languages and sharing a deep history—Naukan Yupik and Central Alaskan Yup’ik—or between societies who did not share a language but shared a recent history of Russian domination Naukan and Chukchi. The common ground between the cultures would be medicinal plants.

“We would like to improve our understanding of how forces of acculturation affect traditional knowledge of plants,” Jernigan said of the project.

Jernigan, a professor at the University of Alaska’s Kuskokwim campus in Bethel, said he was fascinated by how two cultures that originally shared many similarities—from language, lifestyle, and culture—evolved following a major disruption. In this case, that disruption came for the Naukan people, who live on the other side of the Bering Strait from the Alaskan Yup’ik and who were technically part of Russia in the 1800s but for whom Russian influence became dominant in the 1900s. The Soviet government closed various native villages, including Naukan, in 1958, and the Naukan people were moved to another village, Nunyamo, that was subsequently closed.

Petasites frigidus. Photo: Kevin Jernigan

Meanwhile, the Alaskan Yup’ik experienced strong outside influence, but from a distinctly different culture: the United States.

“We have two groups of people who are closely related but with a drastically different history,” said Jernigan. “I want to find out if they are still going to share similarities when it comes to dealing with sickness, or if the outside influence would change the cultural beliefs about medicine.”

Additionally, Jernigan’s research also includes interviews with Chukchi natives, whose language is different from Naukan, but who share the Naukan history of Soviet domination. Ultimately Jernigan hopes to address cultural evolution and differences through the prism of plants, whose role in cultures is essential, both for food and medicine.

Artemisia tilesii. Photo: Kevin Jernigan

Before the Soviets intervened in Chukchi and Naukan societies, illness was often thought to be spiritual in nature. When someone got sick, they would go to a shaman. Due to acculturation during the Soviet period, the cultures adopted many Russian beliefs regarding medicinal plants and the treatment of illness.

Among Naukan people, common medicinal plants include Rubus chamaemorus (cloud berry), and Petasites frigidus (colt'sfoot) used to treat coughs and colds, and Angelica lucida (wild celery), a traditional remedy used for spiritual purification.

Rubus chamaemorus. Photo: Kevin Jernigan

Chukchi people use the first two also, but don't use Angelica as much. Central Alaskan Yup'ik people use Artemisia tilesii (stinkweed) and Rhododendron tomentosum (Labrador tea) for multiple purposes including cold, cough and flu, but these two species are not used for medicine in Chukotka.

Jernigan, who is still analyzing data and has not yet reached any conclusions from his observations, plans to conduct field interviews in 2015 and 2016 to collect more data.  —Rachel Walker