Traditional Medicine

Skin Problems

There are more treatments invented, developed and discussed concerning boils than any other affliction in Northern Quebec. And for good reason: they were at one time very common and potentially dangerous. As one man said, “boils were very common in the old days because people were healthier and were not sick as often as people are today. Also, people think that boils were a substitute for the inner diseases.” Perhaps the Inuit were superficially less well but internally better off. Boils were taken very seriously. An untreated boil can “eat away” at a person’s flesh and if it comes out by itself, it will leave a scar. A boil may also “explode” if ignored: if it explodes inward, the person will likely die in three or four days (no treatment known). If it explodes outward, the boil will take a long time to heal. If not taken care of properly, if one tries to remove the pus too soon or lets the boil get too cold, it is said to get “angry”: all red and swollen.

There are generally two kinds of boils, those with a “centre” of pus (arjuaq), and those without (paagangiruk), but both are treated by various methods in order to bring the pus up to the surface of the skin. The most widely used method employs animal skins. The skins are dried, perforated with small holes (for suction), and then wetted and applied over the boil. These, it is said, stick to a person’s skin like “scotch tape to paper.” Lemming skins are the most popular and the most effective. Best when the lemming is killed in the summer, the inner layer of the skin is peeled off and a special section is selected for use. Some people prefer the skin from the back, some the stomach and others the skin from the right front leg. Usually small patches are cut up and a new one is placed on the boil every day. When the pus reaches the surface of the skin, the hairs on the lemming fur stand up. When lemmings are not available, skins from other animals are substituted. Rabbit, muskrat, weasel and fox skins are used. The hide from the stomach or side of a young dog is said to be very good. The thigh skin from a ptarmigan or even the thinner parts of a caribou skin (the armpits, inner leg) can also be effective.

Besides animal skins, other substances are also placed over a boil in order to “suck up” the pus. An ointment made from a mixture of Labrador tea and fried seal fat was sometimes used. Raw meat from a ptarmigan (breast meat), caribou or fish is useful, as well as chewed caribou kidney fat. Caribou tendon from around the spine can be very strong [effective], but painful. The inner layer of bark from a larch (pingi) or pine tree can be used, though it is sometimes boiled and powderized first. Pond algae (aqayat or pirqapiat), or even dog excrement wrapped in caribou skin and cloth may also be helpful in treating a boil.

When the pus has reached the surface, the boil is deemed ready for surgery. This is the only treatment known in Northern Québec that involved surgery. Surgeons were special people, specialists as much as anyone could be in Inuit society, not trained exactly, but born with a certain talent. If needed, they could be called in for long distance “house calls” and then the patient “always tested to see if the surgeon is good and only then let them handle the infection. If they hurt the patient, they were no good. A good surgeon has the touch of a surgeon.” The surgeon’s knife was also special: made from caribou leg bone, it was a prize possession that was carefully kept when people moved from place to place. The tip was thin but wider than the rest of the blade and it was tested with a rabbit skin. The knife had to be able to split hair easily, because human skin is quite tough, especially when it is tense. Before using, the blade was usually singed in flame and wiped with grass or ptarmigan skin to clean it.

There was no anaesthetic available, though sometimes the patient would drink some Labrador tea in order to be calm. To find the spot where the surgeon would cut, the boil would be probed with either water, which dried fastest nearer the boil, or with the surgeon’s tongue, which could feel the patient’s pulse and a coldness over the centre of the boil. The skin was cut, often in an X shape to prevent quick healing over (of the skin), and the boil was ready to be drained. It was important that all the pus be drained at the same time. Otherwise the boil would simply “move” to another part of the body. Each person present at the surgery tested their hair for strength, and the strongest hair was used to tie to the hard core of pus and pull it out. This was a slow and careful process. A “straw” made from a hollow goosewing bone or some “tweezers” made from wood or walrus tusk was used along with the hair. If the hair snapped in the middle of the procedure, the whole treatment, lemming skins and all, had to be repeated. If the pus did not come out uniformly, a goose feather was used to push it back in again before another attempt.

After the pus was drained, the hard core was sometimes “exorcised” by placing it in a cloth, smashing it to pieces with a hammer and throwing it in the fire, or by taking it outside and placing it in human or dog excrement. If this was done, the patient would not get another boil for a long time.

The drained boil was often cleaned by applying another lemming skin or or by placing maggots (from meat, not garbage) into the boil to “eat out” any residual pus. Dog fat was then rubbed on the area so the skin wouldn’t heal over before the flesh underneath got a chance to grow back.

The first thing to do with a cut is to stop the bleeding. To do this, a tourniquet is tied beween the cut and the person’s heart (if possible), or the cut is immersed or washed in human urine. The latter also cleans the cut well: “You can put your cut in water and you won’t feel anything. In urine you feel it working on the cut.” One must be careful not to get salt water in any cut, because this can cause infection.

The next step is to help the flesh and skin heal itself. Animal fat is often used for this purpose, from a seal (raw fat or rancid fat mixed with ptarmigan down), a caribou (the best fat came from the kidneys), otter or bird (owl, goose or ptarmigan). Pine tree gum can be chewed flat and placed on the cut, as well as the inner layer (boiled) of birch bark. Dried maniq (a moss) or mushroom tops are shredded and used to dry up a cut. Freshwater algae (aqayaqlpirqapiat) is used to clean cuts and keep them moist, if needed. The belly of an Arctic char can help heal, and so can the gum-like innards of codfish lice, which are flattened and applied to the damaged skin.

Here are two examples of particular procedures used on cuts: first, chewed fat (seal or caribou) is applied to help stop the bleeding. Then a thin slice of meat (from the same animal) is laid on the cut for a few days to keep it moist and to help the healing. Another procedure begins with algae, used to clean and moisten the cut, followed by some shredded maniq that dries and heals. If the cut is especially serious, it may have to be sewn closed. Needles made from bone or caribou antler and thread made from animal sinew (caribou or whale) are used. The stitches eventually fall out by themselves.

Once the cut is treated, it is covered by an Inuit “band-aid” of caribou or ptarmigan skin for protection.

Frostbite usually affects the extremities of the body (feet, hands, head) and is often caused by wearing clothing that is either damp or too tight. Washing cold hands or feet with snow can prevent frostbite, but if it is too late, care must be taken: one should not touch one’s hands to frostbitten cheeks. Mishandling can cause complications, such as infection.

Frostbitten areas should be thawed by immersing them (if possible) in ice water (salt water is best), or urine (cool, it also helps prevent infection). If ice starts to form on the skin, this meant the hand or foot is melting from the inside, which is good. If placed in warm water they will melt from the outside, which kills the flesh and is quite dangerous. If a hand or foot thaws by itself and becomes infected, the pus is left alone to drain by itself. Warmed dog excrement, rubbed on a frostbitten area, can also be used to thaw and prevent infection. After the infected area has thawed out, raw animal fat (seal is preferred) or ground-up moss or mushroom tops is applied to help the damaged skin heal.

The best thing to put on a burn is raw animal fat, usually from a seal, though caribou or duck fat can also be used. Other techniques involve applying thin slices of raw caribou or ptarmigan meat, algae, or chewed tree gum directly onto the skin. A dried neck skin from a ptarmigan can be used to cover the burn.

Skin diseases
Raw animal fat is also perfect for skin diseases, the most common of which is impetigo. Seal, polar bear, fox or owl fat can be used; warmed dog excrement, too. It is said that impetigo can be cured very quickly if bearded seal fat is rubbed on the skin outdoors on a sunny day. For more general skin problems, freshwater algae, tea from boiled pinecones, or the bitter green fluid from an animal’s gall bladder (preferably a seal) is used. Polar bear fat is also known to be a hair tonic, used by people with balding heads.

Oil from the stem of Arctic cottongrass (suputik / suputauyak), collected in the spring, may be effective against warts. Dog fat may also be used. Large warts can be cut with a hair, though it takes several tries.