Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Harvesting Old Man’s Beard with Pat Frank

Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I got a chance to tag along with Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) from Holy Cross and Anchorage as he harvested Old Man’s Beard for the first time. People in Alaska have harvested from the lands and waters for thousands of years. More and more people are relearning harvesting plants for medicinal purposes.

Pat has been learning about traditional plants medicines and healing for quite a few years. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with him, his wife, Linda, and a couple family friends north of Anchorage on the Park’s Highway. He was harvesting usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard. It’s a lichen that grows on trees and shrubs. We saw them growing on spruce trees and some other trees. It really looks like an old man’s beard.

Pat believes it has similar medicinal properties to spruce pitch. He makes spruce pitch salve and uses it to heal cuts on himself and it has even helped with cuts on dogs. He learned about spruce pitch medicine from friends in Fort Yukon.

Pat shared stories and advice about how to approach harvesting with respect. Every area has gatekeepers and spirit keepers of the land. Before he goes into the land he always asks permission, and also asks the animals to enter their domain. When he harvests any plants, he always offers something like rock sage as a form of respect to the land. When he offers it, he says, “This is for the healing for our people. Thank you for giving up your medicine for our people.”

What Pat learned from his mentor is that you also have to have the right positive frame of mind when you are harvesting the plant, while you’re preparing it, even when you’re using it. He even prays the day before to make sure it’s going to be a good experience.
According to Pat, sometimes the plants speak to you or call to you. When you are called to a plant, he recommends doing research to learn more it. If you can’t find it in a book or online, then reach out to Elders to get the oral history. When exploring new plants, he quiets his mind and asks, “Can you show me the best medicine that’s going to heal my body?” It’s like saying a prayer.
“If you have more respect for the plants and animals they’ll in turn be more abundant to you.” – Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan)
It was great to learn a little bit about how to approach harvesting. I enjoy learning more from Elders, because they have so much to share and teach. Elders always have great advice with multiple meanings. I learned that we should be careful, have good intentions, learn as much as you can before harvesting, and only take what you need – which is great advice that can be applied to many other things in life.
As he was researching Old Man’s Beard, he saw a video of a guy demonstrating how it really looks like a beard. We had a good laugh as he demonstrated it. Gotta love our Elders sense of humor! We joked about him being Santa Claus.
Pat Frank having fun showing his Old Man’s Beard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Enaa baasee’ to Pat Frank for sharing his wisdom and teachings about harvesting plants from the land!

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