Of secrets and devil's club juice

Posted: Monday, May 12, 2003

In the tidy kitchen of her assisted-living apart- ment in Juneau, Flo Kenney, 69, brews potions - devil's club juice for fatigue and caribou leaf salve to soothe tennis elbow or, even, to heal flesh rent by a black bear's claws.

"It's a big pharmacy out there - there's roots and plants," Kenney said. "People don't talk about it anymore. Kids go to the grocery store and spend $7 on cough syrup."

For three days in the spring, the spry, smiling grandmother harvests, peels and simmers young devil's club to prepare smoky devil's club juice - a piquant Tlingit energy tonic that has the consistency of green tea. Recently, she put an ad in the paper, offering to sell it for $55 a gallon. Her ad calls the potion Alaska Ginseng.

Kenney drinks the juice every day. Only 10 years ago, she was still driving a snowmachine and using the chain saw her son gave her, she said. She still has the vim of a younger woman, easily breaking into an infectious chuckle and gesturing ardently as she speaks.

"People in Craig and Hydaburg, they drink a cup a day, and they are still out at 80 and 90, chopping their wood, hunting," she said, sipping the brownish juice from a glass. "I don't know if it is true, but they say if you drink enough of this stuff, if you have tumors, they will completely dissolve."

Kenney learned about Tlingit healing herbs when she was in her 40s, commercial-fishing with her husband, Donald, out of Pelican. Two Tlingit elders, Eliza Mork-York and May Moy, adopted her into their tribe, she said, making her Raven Coho and calling her "Katye." Kenney is part-Inupiaq by heritage and was raised in a Catholic orphanage in Holy Cross until she was 18.

"They adopted me because they thought that every woman should have a mother," Kenney said of the elders. "Traditionally, a lot of secrets get passed along the women's line. My daughter died of cancer, so I can't pass it to her."

Kenney harvests herbs with her grandson in accordance with Mork-York and Moy's teaching.

"Really you should pick devil's club on an island, and you pick the ones whose leaves face west," She said. "You should always throw the heart in saltwater."

She picks devil's club on Douglas Island, near Eaglecrest Ski Area, pulling it up with leather gloves and loading it into garbage bags. She takes it home, works off the rough outer portion with a knife and simmers it. Kenney also makes caribou leaf or "Hotzeklahna" salve, a thick, white mixture that smells somewhat like chicken soup and feels like Vaseline.

"Incredible stuff," she said, offering up an open jam jar of salve. "It's good for old bone breaks, leg cramps, rashes, back pain, bear mauling. ... If you are really hungry, you can eat it."

Kenney won't reveal the salve's ingredients.

"Nope, secret," she said, giggling. "Call me and I'll sell you some."

Along with painting and carving, Kenney sees her herbal knowledge as her special talent.

"Everybody in my family is talented," she said as she looked at the Alaska Native artwork on her walls. "It's just a good life, that's what it is, a good life."

So far no one has called offering to buy her Alaska Ginseng. Kenney said she wonders what will happen to traditional knowledge of herbs with the next generation of Alaska Natives who "go to the store." There are so many important secrets about herbs, she said, such as an herb that women used to cause abortions when the tribe didn't have enough to eat, or another that caused hunters to fall into short comas to save energy "during the starvation time."

"They take plants to put you in a coma, you urinate, and your blood moves, but the men didn't wake up until the animals came," she said. "So many secrets, it's like you are in a secret society. I wonder why nobody talks about it anymore."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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