Kenaitze tribe to host edible and medicinal plant conference

Experts on medicinal uses of the plants growing in woods and meadows throughout the Kenai Peninsula will be sharing their knowledge this weekend at the Dena’ina Plants as Food and Medicine conference, running Saturday and Sunday at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai. The conference, jointly presented by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, will be called “Nudnelyahi Qudulyi,” meaning “that which grows medicine.”

Topics covered in the two days of demonstrations, discussions, workshops and presentations will range from the philosophical — ethical land use, the place of tradition in modern life — to the practical — safe techniques for preserving plants, making yarrow salve and botanical approaches to diabetes.

The speakers presenting and discussing alongside one another are likewise varied. They include Kenaitze Tribal Council members, environmental specialists, language and culture experts and traditional healers, as well as academics and scientists from outside the tribe, including Dr. Bob Onders of Alaska Pacific University, who will speak about traditional knowledge in Alaskan post-secondary education, and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge entomologist Matt Bowser.

In 1987, Homer resident and ethnobotanist Priscella Russel published “Tanaina Plantlore,” a widely-cited overview of traditional Dena’ina uses of regional plants. She’s since followed it up with a 2011 book on Nanwalek-area Alutiiq plant lore, and has a forthcoming book on Kodiak Alutiiq plant lore. At this weekend’s conference, she will give a talk called “The Road to Tanaina Plantlore.” Elders who learned traditional plant lore from childhood onward will be speaking alongside her — one will be Dena’ina elder and language teacher Helen Dick, who learned traditional plant lore during her childhood in Lime Village on the Alaska Peninsula during the 1950s and 1960s.

Elsie Maillelle, a retired member of the Kenaitze tribal government and long-time member of its Traditional Healing Committee, is another who learned the uses of plants at a young age — in her case, from her grandmother and mother, both medicine women in her native Athabascan village of Holikachuk. She’s since diversified her knowledge by talking with others, she wrote in the conference brochure.

“Plant identification, gathering, and preparing has always been my passion,” Maillelle wrote. “Whenever I travel to different parts of Alaska, I would talk to people to find out what they use and how they use plants. Having a plants conference is a dream come true.”

Registration for the conference is $50 at eventbrite.com, and includes two wild-harvested lunches, wild-harvested tea and snacks and an opening night banquet of locally caught fish.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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