Ethnobotany of the Nakuan People: Past & Present Medicinal Uses of Plants


Naukan ethnobotany in post-Soviet times: lost edibles and new medicinals

Jernigan KA, Belichenko OS, Kolosova VB, Orr DJ
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2017 Nov 17;13(1):61
PubMed Central: PMC5693499

Investigators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, European University at St. Petersburg, and Institute for Linguistic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted an ethnobotanical study of health-related plant use among speakers of the critically endangered Naukan language in the Russian Far East, as part of a larger project to document and compare edible, medicinal, and spiritual plant use among the Naukan and Chukchi peoples of Chukotka, Russia, and the Central Alaskan Yup’ik.

Cape Dezhnev
Detail of a USCGS chart from 1937 showing Cape Dezhnev (East Cape) and the historical villages Tunkan, Uelen (Ugelen), Naukan (Nuokan), Enmitahin, and Dezhnevo (Port Dezhnev). [Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]
Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, the authors begin by describing the history of the Naukan people, which is marked by forced relocation under the Soviet regime:

“The village of Naukan (originally called Nevuqaq) was built on Cape Dezhnev, at the extreme eastern end of Eurasia. Subsistence practices focused on hunting sea mammals including the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), spotted seal (Phoca largha), and bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus). This was supplemented by hunting of land mammals and gathering of plants and smaller marine organisms. During the Russian Imperial and early Soviet period, the site served as an important center for commercial and cultural exchange between the Chukchi on the Russian side and the Iñupiat on the Alaskan side of the Bering Strait. Intermarriages were common between the people of Naukan and the islands of Big and Little Diomede, in the Russian and US territories, respectively.

In 1958, the Soviet government closed Naukan as part of a larger program of consolidation of local population centers, and residents were forced to move to the neighboring Chukchi villages of Nunyamo and Uelen. Nunyamo, in turn, was closed in 1977, and local people moved from there to the villages of Lavrentiya and Lorino, where most reside today.

Following relocation, the Naukan people and their culture experienced significant changes in spiritual worldview, subsistence practices, social structure, and language proficiency. Waves of military and civilian migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union also contributed to these broad changes through direct personal interaction, including intermarriages. Although Naukan people did not experience the acculturative influences of missionary activity that were widespread on the Alaskan side of the Bering Strait, shamans were persecuted and the accompanying spiritual practices were greatly challenged by the dominance of materialism under Soviet rule.”

Artemisia tilesii
Artemisia tilesii, Denali National Park and Preserve [Source: Wikimedia Commons, NPS / Jacob W. Frank, Public Domain]
Working with Naukan speakers in Russia and Alaska, the team documented 42 ethnobotanically useful species with Naukan names. While participants reported a decrease in the number of edible species harvested from what they recall from their youth, the number of species considered to be medicinal increased significantly. These medicinal plant species included Alaria marginata, Angelica gmelinii, Artemisia tilesii, Empetrum nigrum, Epilobium latifolium, Laminaria saccharina, Petasites frigidus, Polygonum tripterocarpum, Rhodiola integrifolia, Rhododendron tomentosum, Rubus chamaemorus, Salix pulchra, and Vaccinium vitis-idaea.

In their conclusion, the authors note a broadening in focus from the specifically therapeutic to include more preventative applications of medicinal plants by the Naukan-speaking people who have survived into the modern era:

“The most surprising result of this research is the direction of change in medicinal plant use. The Naukan present an interesting case where acculturative forces appear to have significantly expanded the botanical pharmacopeia through the borrowing of ethnic Russian traditions. Older Naukan participants often said that their original concept of medicine emphasized prevention. For example, the leaves of willows (Salix pulchra Cham.) and willow herb (Epilobium latifolium L.) aid the digestive system and help prevent stomach upset when they are eaten as part of a meal. This traditional emphasis on staying healthy reflects findings by researchers working in some other parts of the arctic as well.”

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

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