Waqaa! Hello! My Yup’ik calling name is Angute’karaq (“the one who is supposed to be a man” or “the one who will provide”) My English name is Estelle Thomson. I am Yup’ik (Eskimo) from the Alaskan Southwestern Bering Sea coast village of Naparyarmiut–what is known as Hooper Bay in English. Naparyarmiut means “place of the stake village people”.
It’s important to note that you can be Native to Alaska without being an Alaska Native. When I introduce myself, I generally give my lineage so listeners can determine if we are related or if your family has kinship ties to mine, and how. Like a lot of Native folks, I find that I’m related to a great number of people. Alaska is a vastly huge state, but the communities are tied together tightly by our kinship ties. I typically have family wherever I go.
As indigenous people, the world over can attest, colonization has affected each of our communities and Our People in significant ways.
Loss of language, setting aside or forgetting traditions, distancing ourselves from our way of making prayer and shamed for our ways of connecting with the Creator. Our families were displaced from ancestral lands, and introduced into a culture and given requirements that we fit into a society and ways that are foreign. My People and my family aren’t unique. We could have a whole series of conversations about colonization and how it had affected language, culture, societal roles, traditional knowledge, social modes and traditional lifestyle. That’s not unique among any indigenous people.
What is a little unique is who I am and what I do.
I practice the traditional medicine of My People. No, I’m not a “shaman”, that’s a Western or foreign concept. Medicine people in my culture have different classifications. Similar to Western specialists or holy people, we also specialize. There are:
- Spiritual practitioners who most people identify as the people of medicine. They are associated with the Western ideas of Native American or Alaska Native “Shaman”. They do ceremony, pray, work with people or families having spiritual crises, and are kind of like our holy people. We also have body practicitioners.
- Practitioners of manipulation of bones and joints, similar to a chiropractor or a doctor of osteopathy.
- Bodywork practitioners like rolfers, active release therapists or massage therapists.
- Herbalists who just work with traditional medicinal plants.
- Practitioners who work with energy.
- Then there are people like me. I’m kind of a general practitioner. I do a bit of everything. In my clinical practice, I work with bodies-manipulating their soft and connective tissues, their bones and joints, their organs, move fluid (lymphatic and circulatory systems), work with and teach about traditional use of plants for food, medicine and utility, traditional food and lifestyle skills, and I talk with people.I spend a great deal of my time educating people about what traditional medicine is and isn’t, about relationships with ourselves, each other, our spirits, the earth we live on, and with Our Creator and the Universe.
My mother calls me a Yungcarista. Loosely translated it means “doctor”. Basically, it means I take care of/work on people. I work with people to help them understand what is going on inside their bodies and help facilitate change physically, spiritually and emotionally.
I work with traditional medicinal plants, and teach how to identify them, when to pick them, and how to use them. I encourage people to incorporate traditional food in their diets, because our bodies have a distinct genetic connection to the foods of our ancestors and we need to feed that part of who we are. I work with people to understand their relationship to one another, their food, their life and their connection to that which is greater to ourselves.
My life’s work is people. My practice is humanity. My work helps myself and my people to understand the relationships that are so important to us: the relationship with our body; the relationship with our mind; the relationship with our spirit; the relationship we have with one another; the relationship we have with Creator/God/The Great Spirit/The Divine/Universal Energy/*insert name of diety here*. Our bodies hold all the experiences of our life, good and bad. Sometimes we need help with any/all of that.
Becoming A Medicine Woman
I didn’t always practice medicine, but medicine always found me. I’ve always worked on bodies. When I was 4 or 5, my Momma said I had magic little hands. She said I always made people feel better. I grew up thinking everyone else felt what I could feel in people, and do what I do. What a surprise to find out I was more…”sensitive” than the vast majority of people I knew or came into contact with.
Once I realized I was different, I just wanted to be ordinary like everyone else. I fought my “gift”. I didn’t want it. But, after a period of internal conflict, I realized I had to be true to who I was. I was ready to become the provider I was supposed to be. I had to ask my Elders and my family’s permission before I even considered training. I got the go-ahead, but had stipulations put upon me about what I could and could not do. So I trained within those parameters. I learned. I prayed. Turns out I was a “natural”.
I got Western training in bodywork modalities, anatomy, physiology, pathology, other medicine traditions. It was enormously helpful. I love bodies, so I study constantly. I began to explore other cultures’ spiritual traditions as well. I found similarities in other spiritual practices all over the world. I learn everything I can about integrative medicine, bodywork modalities, botanical chemistry, ethnobotany, nutrition, history, language, you name it. I always encourage gifted young people to “get papers” like certifications and degrees to help them navigate the Western systems better. Traditional medicine in the 21st century is changing, adapting, and we have to do things a little differently so our ancestral knowledge gets passed on.
How to approach people who do what I do or talk to indigenous people about their culture
- One of the best things we can do is learn as much as we can about our own traditions and cultural beliefs, as well as others. We aren’t that different. We also should allow ourselves to be open to things, experiences and people we don’t understand. However…
- Never assume it’s okay to take photos or video of traditional dancing, ceremony, or anything done in the realm of a spiritual practice. Always ask if it’s okay to photograph or video. There are things that shouldn’t be recorded or captured.
- Approach people with humility. Anytime I run across a ceremony or cultural traditions I’m not familiar with, a culture I don’t know much about, or traditions I am not familiar with, I explain “You’ll have to forgive me. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I don’t know much about this…”. It’s easier to apologize for your ignorance before you ask a question than to put your foot in your mouth and offend someone.
- Ask if its something they can share or talk about. Sometimes we are bound to protect proprietary knowledge and some things we just can’t share with “outsiders”.
- Don’t ask or say insensitive things like “Teach me your ways.” That’s so offensive.
- When it comes to people of medicine, don’t go with what you’ve seen in movies and on TV. There are different kinds of medicine people. For many of us, our lives are a spiritual practice. But, that doesn’t mean we are immune from being regular human beings. Our spirits are boundless and infinite. Our existence as human beings has limits.
Yup’ik Traditional Medicine
Traditional medicine has been around for millennia. 70-80% of the world still turns to it first before getting Western treatments. As a Yup’ik woman, I keep my culture alive by practicing my gift in the way it was passed down to me. Every culture around the world has traditional medicine. We just don’t always practice them…
In some of the older guidebooks in Alaska, White men claimed they were the first people to “discover” an area because we always left places pristine if we were traveling through! A lot of our people didn’t have “conventional” types of agriculture. We followed herds and had different “camps” that we hunted, fished, or picked plants or berries at. We were the original “low impact” campers.
Before Traveling To Alaska
Before you travel to Alaska, it’s important for you to know that Alaska has 11 distinct indigenous cultures and twenty separate languages. Each have traditional lands typically along the great rivers or waterways. The geography and and biomes in each area of Alaska is as different as Her People.
- In the far north of Alaska, we have the ancestral lands of the Inupiaq and Saint Lawrence Island Yupik (Bering Straits or Siberian Yupik).
- In the Interior of Alaska are the Athabascan people: Ahtna, Deg Hitan, Dena’ina, Gwich’in, Han, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Kuskokwim, and Upper Tanana. They share the same language base as the Dené language group-which includes languages and cultures such the Navajo in the Lower 48.
- Along the Bering Sea Coast and along parts of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, the Central Yup’ik and Cup’ik have their ancestral lands. The Yup’ik have the strongest group of indigenous language speakers left with about 21,000 people of the Yup’ik people still speaking our First Language.
- Down “The Chain”, we have the traditionally seafaring Unangax̂ or Aleut. Closer to the Mainland of Alaska and bordering the Yup’ik and Athabascan peoples on the coast, we have the Sugpiaq or Alutiiq.
- Down “The Panhandle” we have the Southeast Coastal people, the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. They are seafaring people and have traditional trade and travel routes with their relations in Canada and the Pacific Northwest.
I encourage you to seek out the original peoples of the land and learn about them when you come.
About The Author
Angute’karaq is a certified Tribal doctor, a Yup’ik traditional healer. She is an Alaska Native wild-harvester, spiritual worker, and body work practitioner Native to Alaska. You can find out more about her culture and practice by clicking on the social media buttons below: