Since time immemorial, Indigenous traditional healers have provided services for communities throughout the world. In Alaska, traditional healing was the primary form of healthcare for Alaska Native peoples until colonization. Customary medicine practices and many other cultural traditions were disrupted during epidemics in the early 1900s of smallpox, measles, flu, chicken pox, and influenza, collectively known as “The Great Death.” These events, along with assimilation tactics of boarding schools and Christian missions, severed children from parents, elders, and cultural teachers—and, by extension, much of this traditional knowledge.
The U.S. government destroyed traditional economies and resources, forcibly broke up families, forbade the practice of Native language and culture, and made Indigenous religious practices illegal. From the 1880s well into the twentieth century, many Native children living in rural areas were forced to attend boardings schools far removed from their communities, in Alaska and across the country. Colonial violence contributed to the erosion of the health and wellness of Indigenous communities—on spiritual, physical, environmental, and emotional levels. Today’s traditional healers preserve and perpetuate vital cultural knowledge, practicing at the confluence of ancient wisdom and the pressures and rhythms of modern life.
Currently on view at the Anchorage Museum, Good Medicine is a yearlong exhibition focused on renewing relationships with land, ancestors, and culture. It features the work of Indigenous healers from across Alaska, affirming that, despite the past 300 years of colonization, the spirit of Alaska Native peoples survives. Artwork displays change with each monthly moon cycle, and active programming of the space invites healers to facilitate discussions, workshops, story circles, and other forms of knowledge sharing and exchange.
In this interview, Anchorage Museum chief curator Francesca Du Brock speaks with Tlingit traditional healer and Good Medicine curator Meda DeWitt about her journey into healing work and her inspirations for the exhibition.
What brought you to your work as a traditional healer?
My journey to this work is informed by culture, by community, by elders, by my experiences, and by story. It’s a holistic web of knowledge that’s intricately entwined. My learning began very early with education on Prince of Wales Island in Klawock and Hollis. I had a predisposition for plant medicine and intuitive gifts, and I spent a lot of time running free outside. My family, and especially my grandparents, fostered those healing abilities within me.
As an Indigenous person, I struggled with assimilation and colonization. It was difficult in my teens when I was forming my identity. Still, I learned how to make salve, continued to pick berries, and began intuitive counseling and energy work. However, I didn’t take it very seriously. Then, when I was eighteen, my grandpa had a vision and said that I would be doing this healing work as an adult and that I needed to get back to it. I had no idea how to get to that point in his vision.
I grew up reading books my grandpa gave me on home remedies, anatomy, physiology, and plant lore. So, I just started reading. At that point, I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I started looking for a mentor, and I was told discouraging things like “you’re too old to train” or “you’re too white to be a traditional healer,” because of my mixed heritage.
Luckily, a short time later, my Tlingit grandmother moved in with me. She told me family stories and solidified my identity as a human being in relation to my ancestors, family, and worldview. It was empowering to realize that I didn’t need anybody else’s permission to become a healer. I didn’t need to look for external validation of my own identity outside of my family, community, and cultural group. I just had to be who I was supposed to be. And then the right mentors started to manifest with grace at the time that they were needed.
What similarities do you see between artistic practice and traditional healing?
Traditional healing is like art in thought and spirit. Within Indigenous cultures, there is fluidity between these realms of art and healing. Traditionally, art wasn’t separate from every other domain in life. It’s Western culture that separates knowledge into different categories. For example, it’s very common for a medicine person to make their own masks or rattles. I think that art is a medium for teaching and reaching people at different levels of their being. It isn’t linear—it’s psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational. It’s holistic and ever-expanding.
When I work on a person’s body, I anticipate. I don’t direct it. I don’t force it. I don’t make it. I don’t have hard expectations. I anticipate that the body will desire to be the best it can be. And then I just work with the muscles, bones, and fascia. Or if we’re working with herbs or energy, I anticipate that the body wants to be in equilibrium and then support it in ways that allow it to become so. It’s like sculpting, painting, or drawing. It’s creative and intuitive. It’s about letting something emerge into what it naturally wants to be.
Healing is not something that’s ownable. It’s a gift. It’s spirit. It’s you. You only can be a conduit for it. From a Tlingit cosmology, it’s very appropriate to share protocols and information on how to live well and create good human beings.
I love what you’ve shared about the connection between healing and artmaking. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about curating Good Medicine. How was the process of working with Indigenous healers within the bounds of cultural protocols while simultaneously interfacing with the exhibitions team at the Anchorage Museum?
I’ve been dedicated to this work for over twenty years now. I was born into it. It’s a hereditarily transmitted family occupation. If I were somebody who suddenly decided to come in and talk about traditional healing, it would have met extreme rebuke. It’s a process. There are social checks and balances that occur within Indigenous communities that look different in Western communities.
I was able to create Good Medicine because I’ve earned the trust, respect, and support of our Indigenous communities from around the state of Alaska. From there, it’s knowing the protocols and rules around what is acceptable in that space. There’s active medicine in that gallery, ceremony to protect and cleanse that space to hold this content.
At first, getting other healers to sign on to show their work was slow because, historically, it hasn’t been safe for Indigenous medicine people to be seen in a colonial society. They were watching to see if it was going to come together and, if so, how it would be received. We had success in opening the show, and invited healers could see that we were doing it in a good way. So then other healers felt safe to come in and be seen.
Working with the museum is another story. Obviously, concepts of time, intellectual property, and priorities are not the same as Indigenous peoples or traditional healers. For example, the museum wanted everything planned and scheduled months—even a year—in advance. I couldn’t get commitments from many healers that far ahead. But the museum needs to make plans.
I called in people with whom I had longstanding relationships who could contribute certain things, like Dustin Newman Unignax̂. We worked together to design the Medicine Wheel. Yéil Yádi Olson worked with me to build the women’s house, and then he collaborated with Warren Jones on the design for the Yup’ik men’s house.
I felt like an intermediary between two different sets of structures, priorities, and values. The museum has been flexible in terms of shifting between what it wants for a timeline and what it needs, which usually means enough time to freeze materials for pest control or make appropriate mounts. The museum is also being more relaxed about agendas for talks and events. Rather than having every aspect planned out ahead of time, we let people show up and share whatever they want to talk about.
I think overall, it’s gone well, and there’s been bending on both sides.
Can you talk about how you prepared the space to hold this knowledge?
Often, we smudge (burn medicinal plants) to cleanse a space. But this space had to be cleansed without burning things, due to fire-safety concerns. I ended up making a blessed tea with stinkweed, rose, and tundra tea. I used a feather to spritz the space with water and plant medicine. I put blessed sage, salt, and tobacco in the four corners, to help shift the energy, bless the space, and alleviate negativity.
When we were installing, I noticed museum employees coming up to sit and meditate in that space. At a soul level, all people are Indigenous to a place at some point in their ancestral line. All Indigenous people have medicine; however, there are some groups that have been removed from it a little bit longer than Alaska Native peoples have. It’s an undeniable need that resonates in everybody’s heart and soul. There’s a need for medicine and connectivity to the sacred.
When we opened the exhibition, we marked the space with ochre in a way that was authentic, not performative. Admittedly, there was an aspect of rebellion in that gesture. I ground the rock ochre and mixed it with egg whites. It’s going to be hard to get off the wall! It’s not pretending to be medicine; it is medicine. It was to say: this is my handprint. I reside in this space.
I think people picked up on that, this positive energy of defiance you describe. You made your mark on the wall, and then the cup of ochre was passed around, and other people started spontaneously making different marks. Before you knew it, every wall of the gallery was marked in some way.
I have a video of Dustin from that night. He was grinning from ear to ear and said, “I feel like I’m like two years old, and I’m gonna get in so much trouble!” We had talked about incorporating pictographs or tattoo designs at one point but ended up running out of time to weave them into the exhibition design. We both agreed it was something that should be in the space. It happened so spontaneously when he had the ochre. He started using his hands to paint those shapes.
Authentic play and joy—that is medicine.
What do you hope that Native and non-Native communities and audience members take away from this exhibition?
I’m not sure what non-Native people will take away. I think it would be good if there was an understanding of this history of colonization—also, a desire to be good allies and to support healing, to recognize and perpetuate the understanding that we’re not extinct, that we’re alive and well, practicing our traditions. Understanding the harm done is important so that we don’t perpetuate or inflict future harm.
Often, museums talk about Indigenous cultures in the past tense, showing culture that’s not being lived. Once culture is not actively engaged in, it transitions into a dying culture. Being in the museum and being able to co-create this space with other healers where people are showing recent work and actively blessing and marking the space—it’s very progressive. Marking the space with egg whites and ochre was a gesture of ownership—not to irritate the museum but to have a stance of autonomy and sovereignty and active participation in culture. This is our space, and we’re practicing medicine here. It’s a bit forward to do that, but I’m responsible for holding that space and making it safe for other people. These are the steps that are needed to be taken to do that.
Do you see museums as potential sites for healing? And what does that look like to you?
Yes, of course I do. Museums have played a part in removing culture from communities in the past. Cultural belongings were collected in the name of Western academia. I was just at a traditional potlatch memorial party, and we had over twenty objects repatriated from a museum. One item was a hat that had been taken from a Tlingit family by the police. This hat later found its way into a museum collection under dubious circumstances. Not long ago, during the Jim Crow era, practicing our culture and spirituality was illegal and was punished accordingly.
We are in this in-between space now where people should not need to be legitimized by museums. It’s not a museum’s place to legitimize our access to culture; however, it is a museum’s place to assist in that reclamation of culture. Because museums are institutions of power, part of the reconciliation process is leveraging that privilege and power for the healing and betterment of the local Indigenous peoples.
Francesca Du Brock is the chief curator at the Anchorage Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate. Her curatorial practice is informed by her background as an artist and educator and is grounded in social engagement, place-based storytelling, and environmental justice. She holds an MFA from the San Francisco Arts Institute and an EdM from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Meda Dewitt is a Tlingit (Lingít) traditional healer, certified massage therapist, ethnoherbalist, educator, and events coordinator. She has a master’s degree of arts in Alaska Native traditional healing from the Alaska Pacific University, and she is currently in an Indigenous studies doctoral program at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, New Zealand.