Unangam Hitnisangin-Aleut Plants

By: Sharon Svarny-Livingston

The variety of plants on the islands of the Aleutians, and particularly on Unalaska and Amaknak, will amaze most visitors who are fortunate to visit during summer months. Starting at the beach and reaching the very tips of the mountains, the absolute green will shock the eye. And, if you take a trek from the beach to the tips of those mountains, you will witness a rich progression of plants, some extremely sturdy, some incredibly delicate, and all obviously well adapted to the environment. Habitats seen are typical of those seen in most coastal zones - coastal beach, meadow, marsh, sea-side cliff, fresh and saltwater lagoon, stream, lake, higher slope and high rocky cliff. Probably one of the most amazing, and by far the easiest methods of discovering the plant life of an Aleutian island, is to simply take a seat in the tundra. You will be astounded with the number of wildflowers, mosses, and grasses within a one foot square area, completely within the grasp of your hand.

Aside from the simple beauty of the plant life and the importance of plants to the wildlife of the area, plants have always been important to the indigenous people who have inhabited the Aleutians for millennia. Though too numerous to list here as there are hundreds, they include both medicinal and edible plants. Medicinal knowledge of the plants is the one aspect of Unangan healing capabilities that survived the advent of outside contact. Absent today are the advanced surgical abilities of the Unangan/Unangas, as well as the practice of acupuncture. The demise of both was due to the devastation of the population, from an estimated 15,000 to 25,000, to a mere 1,875 within 60 years of contact with European invaders.

As a part of most indigenous lifestyles, subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering sustain the lives of large populations in rural Alaska. In the Aleutian area, we have relied upon the traditional harvest of natural resources for thousands of years and have passed this way of life, with its long-established culture and values, down through generations. Medicinal knowledge and use of native plants requires precise knowledge of the environment, the seasonal patterns of medicinal plants, where they grow, when to collect them (at their most potent stage), how to prepare them, and how and in what dosages to administer them. In our region of the Aleutians, the Unangan used this knowledge to cure illnesses, alleviate pain, heal burns and bone fractures, and fight infection. Traditional medicine is intrinsically holistic. Conventional medicine is only beginning to conceptualize looking at health, healing, and medicine as a complete circle. So when I see plants, or simply discuss them, I immediately think of their value, not in terms of simple beauty, but to solve and balance health needs.

When you live on an island, you begin to realize the true importance of the environment. Its health represents stability and wellbeing. In the worldview, the entire environment is made up of tiny subsections of local environments which are under each of our local care. The Unangan/Unangas believe, as do most indigenous peoples, we are here to take care of and preserve the environment for those generations not yet seen. Walking through some of the most unforgettable tundra during your visit to Unalaska will certainly help promote that concept in your heart, as well as your mind.