Alaska Native Religion and Well-being – Danielle Chilson

“The Real People”

The Inupiat are primarily a coastal people who reside in the northern most portions of Alaska and Canada. They occupy the Seward Peninsula and the Kotzebue Sound (Fortuine, 1992; 15). Linguistically, they are part of a larger group of Inupiaq speakers that inhabit the Bering Straits and interior North Alaska.   The coastal dwellers have a diet consisting of bowhead whale, seal, and fish. The individuals that lived in the interior were culturally distinct, in that they relied more on caribou as a source of food and clothing (Langdon, 2014; 84).



Eskimo Medicine Man

Traditional Medicine and Shamanism

Prior to contact, the Inupiat relied on traditional medicine for curing illness and ailments. Shamans were the most important healer and held sizeable power and authority among their people, as they had the ability to communicate with the spirits around them. Healing did not only include the individual and their particular illness, but it also included healing an entire community that might be suffering or threated by a specific evil spirit. Shamans would often use drums and rattles and dress with a cape and belt, which usually included sacred ornaments and personal accessories, that were used to communicate with the spirit the shaman was seeking in the séance (Niatum, 1997; 56). For individual ailments, many medicinal plants were used in healing. For example, Juniper berries, or “Raven’s Berries” were eaten raw or used in a tea to cure cold/flu symptoms, coughs and chest congestion, and internal pain (Garibaldi, 1999; 21).


Color Post Card. Indian witch doctor ("shaman") healing a sick woman.

Shaman from Alaska in a healing ceremony.


Changes to Health Post-Contact

Due to the Inupiat’s geographic remoteness, they were one of the last groups of Alaska Native’s to come into contact with Europeans and Americans. This contact, however, brought on several devastating epidemics. Illness that had never been known to this part of the world was spreading like wildfire. As early as 1848 an outbreak of a coughing disease spread throughout the villages. In 1851, after an arrival of a ship, an epidemic of respiratory disease, including a rash, broke out. This illness appeared within five days and spread quickly to the surrounding villages as it made its way up to the Yukon. One final example is the epidemic that occurred at Point Hope, a location in which whaling crews and other visiting ships constantly visited. In 1894 an outbreak of bronchopneumonia occurred, killing one sixth of the population of Point Hope (Fortuine, 1992; 209). From this point forward, many new illnesses made their way throughout northern Alaska including measles, influenza, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases that were not originally known to have been in the area.



An Inupiat family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929.


Changes to Healing Practices Post Contact


Public Health Campaigns in the 1920’s tried to halt the spread of TB

Disease and illness continued to spread throughout Alaska villages, the worst of it being Tuberculosis. The United States Indian Health Service decided to intervene and began providing health care to Alaska Native people in the 1940’s. By 1953 the Alaska Native Medical Center, a 400 bed facility was built, in Anchorage, to help assist with the epidemic.   The average lifespan of Alaska Native people in 1957 was 30.5 years of age. Children under the age of one, however, had a mortality rate of 86.6 deaths per 1000 live births (The Mukluk Telegraph, 2014; 8). These new unknown ailments were being treated with biomedicine, pushing traditional healing to the wayside. Today, traditional healing can still be found, but biomedicine seems to have taken more of an important role in health practices. Shamans can also be found, but it’s rare, and they no longer play this integral healing role in the community. Other forms of traditional healing, however, can still be found today. For example, the Southcentral Foundation, located in Anchorage, offers traditional healing services along side with western medicine. Along with a referral or simply by the request of the patient, traditional healing practices are offered “in coordination with Western-trained providers”. Some of these traditional healing methods include “healing hands and healing touch, prayer, cleansing, song and dance, counseling, talking circles, and a medical garden”.



            Not to say that the Inupiat did not suffer from illness prior to contact, but these new illnesses and diseases spread so rapidly after meeting their American and European visitors causing many deaths.   . Although the community is working to keep traditional medicine alive, working hand in hand with biomedicine, the Inupiat have undergone radical changes. They went from only using the healing work of the Shamans and using traditional medicine to entering the world of microorganisms and biomedicine. Today, tuberculosis is still a major issue in many of the villages but with the help of the Alaska Native Medical Center life is improving. As of 2013 the average life expectancy of Alaska Native people is 75 years for women and 70 years for men and infant mortality is only 4 of every 1000 live births.


Fortuine, Robert. Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 1989.

“Health Aspects of Arctic Exploration – Alaska’s Medical History Based on the Research Files of Dr. Robert Fortuine.” Health Aspects of Arctic Exploration. Accessed October 27, 2015.

Garibaldi, Ann. Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives: A Compilation of Knowledge from Literary Sources of Aleut, Alutiiq, Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Yupik Traditional Healing Methods Using Plants. Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Natural Heritage Program, Environment and Natural Resources Institute, University of Alaska Anchorage, 1999.

Niatum, Duane. Shamanism, Sacred Narratives, the Sea, and the Cedar in the Art of John Hoover, Aleut Sculptor. 1997.

Mukluk Telegraph, 1943-1950. Anchorage, Alaska?: Civilair Club of the Federal Aviation Agency, n.d. Web.

“Southcentral Foundation – Many Paths: Intersections of Traditional and Western Healing – Healing Ways – Exhibition – Native Voices.” U.S National Library of Medicine. Accessed December 2, 2015.


An Inuit Family. George R. King, 1917, in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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