The Right to Heal : Herbal Rights & Indigenous Sovereignty
“To think of an herb as separate from its cultural heritage denies the power of the herb.”
As an herbalist, I would like to see the herbal medicine field incorporate more values and ethics around social justice. In my own herbal circles, there have been issues regarding race, facilitation, sexual abuse and cultural appropriation. As an indigenous woman, I have been struggling with these contradictions in a community founded on supposed healing.
I take serious issue with herbal schools and businesses promoting native medicines without acknowledging the native tribes that the plants originally belonged to. Especially in regards to white sage, which is a sacred plant to my tribe, the Chumash. It seems that these issues are only heard by larger communities or businesses when white herbalists reflect these concerns. This is further isolating. I am not one to consider race on a regular basis, but when I find myself being one of the only brown people in a room full of white people talking directly about native plants, it becomes a deeper, personal issue when nobody is willing to talk about cultural appropriation.
To think of an herb as separate from its cultural heritage denies the power of the herb. Many people argue that all herbs belong to all people. Is this really true? When natives are still denied access to clean water, the right to vote, or rights to their own land on this continent, is it really fair to say that all people can have access to their traditional medicines that other people are profiting from? Why should this be the case when native peoples cannot be sovereign or live prosperously? Why are they being denied the right to basic rights, while others profit off of their medicines?
There is also blatant misuse of power in the cases of some herbal teachers in my community. Sexual abuse has been uncovered and is now being called out, over social media and elsewhere. Those who have been targeted are not receiving the support that they need. These teachers, or “herbal elders,” are being protected due to their long history of education and influence in the herbal world. However, if your power is hurting others, you aren't making the world a better place, no matter your influence or previous offerings.
I would like for Herbal Medicine to truly be a healing field that faces issues around social justice and abuse. Healing the world isn't just about drinking a cup of chamomile when you're upset. The plants have more to teach us besides what they are good for superficially. We need to stop looking at the earth in terms of profit. We need to stop looking at plants in terms of just how they benefit us. By ignoring the indigenous people who had connections with specific plants, we are doing a disservice to the plants as well. And by ignoring abuse survivors in order to protect abusive educators, we are failing our students as well as the plants, who are our greatest teachers of all.