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Bethel herbalist turns to nature for ailments

Posted: Sunday, November 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- Diaper rash is hardly a springboard for a new career. But a stubborn case turned out to be just that for Bethel resident Gloria Simeon, an herbalist who was marketing her wares at the Alaska Federation of Native convention in Anchorage last week.

Several years ago while tending to her niece's angry skin condition, Simeon read the label of a commercial diaper rash creme her sister handed her. The tube was full of chemicals and a dizzying array of unidentifiable ingredients.

''I read the tube, and I said, 'This can't be good,''' said Simeon, a Yupik and Athabascan grandmother who is finishing her bachelor's degree in rural development.

Simeon, who was born and raised in Bethel, figured she could brew up something more natural to heal the vexing rash. She turned to wormwood -- caiggluk, as it's known in Yupik -- an herb found in Southwest Alaska that is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. The Yupik people have used it for centuries to heal a variety of ailments, Simeon said.

With extra-virgin olive oil as a base ingredient, the newly concocted ointment quieted her niece's diaper rash and the baby quickly became comfortable, Simeon said, sitting in a crowded Egan Center late Thursday as conventioneers ambled by.

''It worked so well. I just started giving it to people. I thought, 'I can do something with this,'" Simeon said.

She read books about herbs and began experimenting with other plants found on the tundra and around the nooks and crannies of Bethel, as well as from other regions of Alaska. Cottonwood buds, spruce needles, fireweed, yarrow and ayuq, also known as Hudson Bay tea, found their way into Simeon's kitchen. The all-natural ointments, she said, address conditions ranging from cuts and scrapes to arthritis and eczema.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, Simeon said, and the result was a small business called ''Yup'ik Way.'' Simeon's line of ointments and salves is carried by shops in several Western Alaska villages as well as in stores in Kodiak, Anchorage and Juneau. One of the most popular products is called Balm of Gilead, made from spruce needles. It can help treat colds and relieve congestion, Simeon said.

''She has a Balm of Gilead that I used for my mom when she had pneumonia,'' said Rebecca Nelson, manager of the Moravian Book-store in Bethel, which carries the ointment. ''She came up from the village with pneumonia, and I used it on her and her pneumonia got better really quickly.''

Before going to school full time, Simeon worked for 15 years with the Association of Village Council Presidents, rising from clerk to vice president of operations, she said.

After she finishes her college degree next semester, Simeon plans to devote herself full time to the business. She hopes to expand the product line to include medicinal teas. Her ideas took shape in part during a class project in which students drew up a business plan for Yup'ik Way.

Simeon said she harvests the plants in a sustainable fashion and blesses the Earth with tobacco for producing a renewable resource.

''I never strip a place,'' she said.

Ten percent of her gross revenue is donated to elders programs, Simeon said. It's payback for sharing their stories of traditional methods of healing.

''The knowledge came from the elders.''



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