5 Indigenous North Americans carrying on healing traditions

An article by our partners Anima Mundi Herbals

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, traditional healer Tonita Gonzales operates Tonatzin Traditional Healing and a temazcal (Mexican sweat lodge) that caught the attention of local news radio KUNM 89.9FM. With diplomas from American University and continued studies of traditional medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Morelos and Centro de Desarrollo Humano Hacia La Comunidad, her collaborative community educational and indigenous healing practices aim to balance mind, body and spirit, and to heal generational trauma with generational gifts. Gonzales believes that healthy individuals are the result of healthy communities and has worked closely with numerous curanderos internationally. Learn more about Tonita’s offerings rooted in ancestral knowledge here.

Nomtipom Wintu ethnobotanist and certified medical herbalist Sage LaPena is on a mission to preserve and pass on the Native uses of medicinal plants. She’s invested in sharing knowledge about both native and introduced plants, as well as Traditional Ecological Knowledge related to these herbal allies. In this video co-produced by KCETLink Media Group and the Autry Museum, LaPena calls into question what happens when the traditional medicinal practices of Native communities become introduced to popular culture. One result is limited access (or a lack of access altogether) by the very Native communities who need them most.

In 2018, YES! Magazine reported Rhonda Grantham of the Cowlitz tribe, midwife and herbalist, and other healers under the umbrella of the Canoe Journey Herbalists, set their sights on decolonizing herbalism. Their bus (a mobile healing center) was once a kitchen, then a treatment center at the Standing Rock water protector camps. It eventually lent its services to over 100 canoes from more than 70 tribes on a two-week canoe journey along the Pacific coast of Washington and Canada. Grantham told YES! Magazine, “The dynamic of the herb world is being appropriated by White herbalists who have land on which to harvest and money to pay for classes and conferences on herbalism.” Grantham and her peers intend to teach people how to sustainably harvest plants via indigenous-centered and -led principles. Read more about Grantham and the radical pharmacy on wheels here.

Linda Black Elk may lecture at the North Dakotan tribal university Sitting Bull College, but she humbly describes herself as a “nerdy indigenous ethnobotanist”. Counting 30,000+ followers on her social networks, she is wholly determined to make indigenous healing accessible to more people. Her local clinic, inspired by a pop-up medical camp that ran from 2016-17 under her leadership at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation protests, is just one example of her determination to fulfill that mission. Balancing science and indigenous wisdom, she’s also married to one of Black Elk’s great-grandsons. The Oglala Lakota medicine man was largely revered and his legacy documented in Black Elk Speaks (1932).

Native to the Choctaw community, Brit Reed is now being celebrated for her work as a cook, teacher, farmer, historian, and Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty advocate, though none of the above was in her plans when she left culinary school at age 29. Her academic theorizing gave her pause: “I should stop this theorizing about all these things,” Reed told Bon Appétit magazine she thought to herself, before resolving to get her hands dirty. Post-culinary school, she joined I-Collective, the group of Indigenous chefs and activists behind the multimedia cookbook project, A Gathering Basket (linked in our reading list below). You can read more about Reed and her dynamic peers here and here.

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