For Maleah Wenzel, working with s’axt’, devil’s club, is healing. Maleah is Tlingit and a lifelong Wrangellite. She just graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and is now moving out into the great big world. This summer, Maleah is living in Juneau and working as a summer seminar adviser for Outer Coast. Come September, she’ll be moving to Anchorage in order to start work as an Alaska fellow with the Alaska Children’s Trust. Maleah is Planet Alaska’s niece. We interviewed her about harvesting devil’s club and what she’s learned after years of harvesting with her family.
Being in the woods, and working with a sacred plant, gives her a feeling of peace, especially when she’s with people she cares about and feels comfortable with. Mainly, she enjoys hiking, harvesting and healing together with family and friends. Maleah said “Auntie Vivian (Yéilk’) is the person who’s taught me almost everything I know about plants. This summer, I just happened to wind up in Juneau so I could harvest with her. It was meant to be.”
Maleah said the pandemic has taken a lot of social activity away from her as it has from everyone else.
“COVID-19 took my last college quarter, my college graduation, my summer job, time with family and friends, my sense of safety,” she said.
Maleah came close to being Alaska’s first COVID-19 case. She spent the beginning of March trapped in Europe while the world was shutting down, when she finally managed to make it to Juneau to quarantine near her Auntie Vivian.
“I started showing symptoms a few days later,” she said. “Trouble breathing, a sore throat, inflamed nasal cavities, achy muscles and tiredness. Auntie Vivian immediately had me do a devil’s club steam bath and drink an entire large pot of devil’s club tea. Those helped my symptoms a lot, especially my breathing and inflamed nasal cavities.”
Thankfully, Maleah tested negative for COVID-19 a few days later. Maleah said “The symptoms were most likely an after effect of spending 48 very stressful hours in European and American airports. But the physical relief devil’s club gave me still made me feel so much better.”
Throughout her life, Maleah’s used many devil’s club products, from teas, to steam, to tinctures, salves and oils. Sometimes she uses products infused with cotton wood, worm wood or chaga.
“It all depends on what my body needs,” she said. “My absolute favorite use is devil’s club oil for pain. It works as well as any painkiller I’ve ever used and much faster.”
This summer Maleah decided she wanted to learn to harvest s’axt’, the traditional medicine she’d been using all her life. “Harvesting devil’s club is not a little thing,” Maleah said. “It takes years to get to know the plant well enough to understand it. Even if you have someone who’s dedicated to teaching you every day, it would still take years to learn simply because that’s the nature of the plant.”
Fortunately, Maleah has her auntie Vivian to teach her.
Maleah said “I have a million memories of harvesting with my auntie Vivian in Wrangell. When we were younger, my auntie Vivian and my mother would take my little sister and I harvesting, usually berry picking. I wasn’t so interested in harvesting, though. I was mostly interested in playing and being one of those crazy kids who played in the dirt.”
Maleah stresses that devil’s club is a complex medicinal plant. It changes, grows and becomes something different as the seasons, weather and earth change. Working with it throughout its many phases — having patience — is the only way to become completely competent.
“There are people who harvest devil’s club without truly knowing what they’re doing,” Maleah said. “They harm the plant and the ecosystem that relies on the plant. Something so healing and so giving deserves better.”
The traditional Tlingit values Maleah has learned while harvesting s’axt’ are not new to her, but rather, she’s learned new ways of thinking about those values.
“I grew up knowing how to be respectful to the plants and the Earth,” she said. “If you do, the plants will keep coming back so we can live off them.”
Respect means a lot more than just being careful and responsible.
“It means you have to know what you’re doing,” Maleah said. “If you have even a little doubt, you need to defer to someone with the knowledge. Devil’s club can interfere with someone’s medications such as heart medications or insulin.”
Maleah’s learned some practical tips about devil’s club. First, “If you get a single devil’s club needle in your body, stop what you’re doing and start digging otherwise it’ll fester.”
Second, she said, “Don’t get stabbed in the first place.” Maleah points out it’s nearly impossible not to get a devil’s club needle in your skin if you’re working with the plant all day. She recommends wearing thick rain gear that can withstand a puncture. Third, she says not to use a pocket knife but a butter knife to clean the stalks.
Harvesting s’axt’ is about balance and respect. Prep devil’s club in the woods, off the trail because you don’t want to leave needles where someone’s kid or dog might wander into it. She also suggests you wear pants covering the tops of your shoes.
“Trust me,” Maleah said. “the last thing you want after a long day of scraping devil’s club is to discover needles in your shoes working their way into your foot.”
One of Maleah’s favorite things she learned is just how easily the bark comes off, depending on the season.
“My auntie taught me that certain times of the season, it’s ‘like butter.’” Maleah explained that when the plant is right at the sweet seasonal spot, you can scrape the outer bark off in minutes and peel the inner bark off just like peeling a really big banana.
One of the most important things Maleah’s learned is that it’s incredibly important to treat s’axt’ respectfully.
“Our people have been here for at least 10,000 years,” she said. “There’s a reason: When our ancestors learned the proper way to take from the land, they made sure that way continued. They passed on knowledge to their children and grandchildren. It’s our duty to continue harvesting in the way that’ll sustain us for another 10,000 years. It begins with understanding. Just as we have some form of empathy for humans and animals, we should have empathy for plants, even if that empathy doesn’t quite look the same as it does for other things.”
Because we’re in a pandemic Maleah has the urge to help.
“My instinct is to go out into the world and help, but now is not the time to risk my life and the lives of those near and dear to me,” she said. “But through this plant, and through the work of Planet Alaska and my auntie, Vivian Mork Yéilk’, I can help without risking anyone. I can help harvest the plants and create a medicine which helps people stay healthy and could perhaps help those who fall sick.”
Maleah will soon take on the responsibility of creating a safer state for the children of Alaska so the responsibility of being a medicine-maker will wait for another phase of her life. Learning how to harvest and make things with devil’s club takes a lot of time, much more than one summer. Making medicines is a big responsibility.
“You hold in your hands the knowledge of our most sacred medicine.”
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.