Most folks assume that herbalism is an alien concept to Inuit, since Arctic plants were often not plentiful enough to command their attention. This is partly true, since Arctic plants only have a short window of opportunity (24-hour daylight of summer) in which to flourish. They are evolved to lie in wait, then explode into summer action. For three-quarters of the Arctic year, the world is all crisp, white, crunching angles. Suddenly, it is endless, moist, yielding color, a thousand different floral shapes in which fat black spiders, dancing flies, and numerous other creatures make their homes. But Inuit have always known, just as southern Aboriginal peoples have, that their plants are medicines waiting to be used.
Southern Aboriginal peoples have always made a great deal out of their traditional herbal knowledge - and justifiably so. Some of what I have learned from reading or talking to Indian elders can make a pharmacy look like a cheap candy store by comparison. But all of humanity is heir to the same genius, that ability to find an edge from our environment. Ancient Celts, for example, used sacred mistletoe leaves (not the poisonous berries) to soothe nervous disorders. Zulus rushed into battle after ingesting a concoction of roots and fungus that dulled pain. Ancient Greeks used lavender as a sedative - and a nice bath.
While many cultures have abandoned their traditional herbal knowledge in favor of modern pharmaceuticals (which I am not criticizing), the Aboriginal peoples of North America were overrun by European colonists only recently, so many of their elders still retain useful herbal knowledge. Luckily, a lot of it has found its way into book form.
So why don't Inuit ascribe much importance to their own herbal knowledge? Well, firstly, Inuit were not just a little nomadic, but nomadic over almost incomprehensible distances - which is why "Eskimoan" circumpolar cultures can pretty much understand each other's languages. Secondly, the Arctic landscape varies greatly, causing the available plant life to do likewise. In other words, unlike in the South, there was little consistency in the types of plants Inuit were able to access. And consistency - predictability - is what survival is based upon.
Inuit medicines were typically based upon that most common Inuit resource: animals. Numerous traditional treatments utilized skins, fats, sinews and oils from a wide range of creatures. Seal fat, for example, was essential for treating snow blindness and burns. Seal bile was good for skin problems. The neck skin from a ptarmigan was prized as a light dressing. Lemming skin was used to drain boils.
Yet Inuit did possess herbal knowledge that varied from area to area, just as the plants did. Inuit near the tree line could access pine, the inner bark of which is rich in acetylsalicylic acid (natural aspirin). More importantly, tree line Inuit could gather juniper berries, known the world over for their antiseptic properties, as well as their utility in treating kidney and bladder problems, gas and mild infections.
Even Inuit without access to the tree line still had many uses for the plants available to them. One of the most important plants was Arctic cotton grass. The oil from the stem removes warts. The cottony head of the plant makes an excellent all-purpose swab. A mixture of cotton grass and charcoal makes a good temporary wound cover.
There were numerous other plant medicines, as well. Freshwater algae, boiled first, was used for just about anything relating to the skin, from boils to impetigo. Moss not only made a good lamp wick, but was used for extreme snow blindness, skin problems, frostbite and wound dressing. Fireweed leaves helped stop nosebleeds. Dwarf willow roots were peeled and held against a sore tooth (I still do this myself if I get a toothache while hiking). Some sorts of mushroom were used externally for cuts and frostbite (not to mention shamanic rituals). Mountain sandwort was good for diarrhea.
More often than not, Inuit used plants as tea, and various tea recipes have existed across the Arctic since time immemorial. Tea-drinking was both recreational and medicinal, but the former at least explains the unusual Inuit fondness for store-bought (i.e., Asian) tea.
Fireweed has always been one of the most popular teas for universal intestinal complaints (everything except the roots is boiled), although Inuit and other cultures found it useful for myriad things, including: muscle spasms, nervous irritation, irritation of the mucous membranes, regulating menstruation, and healing sores and blisters (as an external balm). Cloudberry leaves, bearberry leaves and alpine smartweed were used for general stomachaches and kidney problems. Bearberry tea, in particular, has strong diuretic and astringent properties, and is said to be good for bladder troubles.
The most widely-ingested tea, however, was Labrador tea. The entire plant (especially the leaves) is rich in a pungent, volatile oil called ledol. The more it is steeped or boiled, the more ledol is released, so that overdoing it can quickly turn an otherwise pleasant tea into a smelly mess. A strong wash of it can even remove lice or other skin parasites. It has a reasonably strong sedative effect, although it shouldn't be used by people prone to heart problems and seizures. If one is unused to it, it can cause giddiness and lightheadedness at first, but the body quickly acclimatizes to it. Medicinally, Inuit most often took it to relieve stomach problems, mild constipation, and fever.
While these herbs outlined above might at first seem like an impressive array of traditional medicine, bear in mind that most can be described in only a single article, such as this one. Southern herbal traditions, conversely, can fill volumes. So if Inuit elders do not talk a lot about their herbal lore, it isn't because they are without such. It is just that such lore is so undependable - in their lifestyle - that it is not at the forefront of their minds.
Personally, I like my Labrador tea, but I have to tell you: If my finger is bleeding, I want a Band AidTM.
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.