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Some Suggestions for Herbalist and Plant Lovers on Indigenous People’s Day

It’s almost Columbus Day in the United States.  As an herbalist who has studied primarily with a First Nations teacher, Choctaw elder Karyn Sanders, I can’t let this day pass without an acknowledgement of the brutal legacy of this holiday.

This country was built on bloodshed.  Recently, I wrote about the legacy of Cotton and it’s connection with the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.  The United States celebrates Columbus Day on October 14th this year.  I have followed the leadership of many indigenous people in shifting my language and naming this day indigenous peoples day.  I invite you to consider this re frame as well.

So how can those of us who are non-native herbalists and people who love the earth honor Indigenous Peoples Day?  Here’s some ideas:

1)  Learn the History

US History textbooks have lied about the legacy of genocide in this country for generations.  Dominant culture continues to spread lies and mistruths about Native Americans.  A key way that the genocide continues is through an erasure of Native American identity.  Even some progressive discussions of American history can contain undercurrents of “and all the Native people are dead now”.  Western Herbalists often talk about how “Native Americans used to use this plant in this way…..”.  Can you see how this approach erases the existence of current indigenous people and their practices?  It’s important to know this history and to recognize that there are First Nations people that have survived the genocide and are fighting for their continued survival.  See a link below for a video about the Taino people (the tribe on who’s lands Columbus landed) and efforts of these people to reclaim and/or be recognized as indigenous people.

2) Radically reconsider your wildcrafting practices and connections with colonization 

When I first started studying with Karyn one of the first things she taught me is don’t harvest a plant until you have known it’s community  for 7 years.  I have been sitting with this teaching over the years.  One of the things I have learned through this teaching is that plant populations shift and change over the years.  Sometimes a community of plants that you meet for the first time that appears to be thriving is actually on the decline–often due to over harvesting.  You may happen upon a beautiful stand of Angelica in the mountains and only harvest a small amount, make good offerings, and think you have been walking in a good way.  However what you may not know is that this is a stand that a local indigenous healer has been tending to, sometimes for generations and you have just taken their medicine.  Developing a relationship with a plant community over several years allows you to notice if it is being tended to and harvested by someone locally.  If someone is already tending to it and harvesting, you know this is not the place to harvest.  This is also a great way to develop and deepen your relationships with the plants and your relationships with the land.

3) Don’t romanticize or generalize Native American cultures


Indigenous people are not exotic mysterious ghosts as some folks in the world of complimentary medicine would have you believe.  Indigenous people are alive and many are thriving today.  There is no one monolithic “Native American people”. There are many different tribes and traditions within Native cultures.  If you hear yourself saying “Native American people…..”, just take a breath and stop yourself.  Who are you talking about?  Are you talking about someone you know?  Are you talking about wisdom connected with a specific tribe?  Or are you talking about a mysterious “other” that’s more representative of myths and misconceptions than actual people?

Art by Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza at Dignidad Rebelde 

4) Support Indigenous Struggles for Self Determination and Liberation


Contrary to what many history books want you to think, Indigenous people are everywhere.  In California, there are many tribes who are struggling to get their land back and to be recognized by the government as Native Peoples once again.  Struggles around the protection of sacred sites are common throughout the Americas.  Health challenges connected with economic disparities and colonization are common.  Learn about what efforts people in your area are involved in and figure out how to be in support of these struggles.

Here’s some suggestions:

The Idle No More movement has taken the world by storm.  This indigenous led movement is at the forefront of efforts to “honor indigenous sovereignty and protect the land and the water”.  This movement is leading the charge against the XL Pipeline which is threatening many indigenous peoples lands, sacred sites, and all of our safety.  Check out their website and learn about upcoming actions near you and ways to be involved.  If you are non-native, here’s six sacred considerations in solidarity with this movement.

Indigenous peoples of Central America are a big part of today’s wave of migration to the United States. Efforts for comprehensive immigration reform are a key part of many indigenous peoples struggles for liberation.  PICO is doing great work among people of faith to support immigration reform and their efforts are led by lay leaders many of whom are of indigenous ancestry. Learn about local efforts for comprehensive immigration reform and get involved with the movement.

The land that has been sacred to many First Nations people is still under attack.  Check out this website to learn more about efforts to protect sacred sites.  You can also follow Indian Country Today which often posts articles about efforts to protect land sacred to different indigenous peoples.

Further Reading:

Taino Indians Counted out of Existence video posted by Alex Zacarias
Brief history with interviews with Taino people about the struggle for their indigenous identity to be recognized.  

Native History: Columbus—Icon and Genocidal Maniac—Lands in New World by Christina Rose

Article at Indian Country today about the Legacy of Columbus

Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing.  Edited by MariJo Moore
A compilation of writings by First Nations people about genocide and current struggles for liberation

A Violent Evangelism: The political and religious conquest of the Americas by Luis N. Rivera
An exploration of the legacy of genocide 15th and 16th century and the work of Bartolomeo De Las Casas and other theologians who documented some of the early horrific acts of genocidal colonization in the Americas, particularly among the Taino people.    

A more comprehensive approach to viewing the history of this land.  

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