Powered By Plants and Culture: Ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph on Skincare, Plant Care and Soul Care
“As an adult…, I have done a lot of reflecting on the personal part of reconnecting to culture through plants, and the places where I draw my strength and identity from and the theme for me has always been the land and plants and community,” Leigh Joseph, an ethnobotanist from Squamish, BC, explains. She studies the cultural interrelationships between people, plants and the environments plants grow in.
Her father’s family is from Squamish and Snuneymuxw First Nations, while her mother is Jewish and English. Joseph grew up comfortable going out on the land with her parents and visiting elders in community. Now finishing her PhD, she worked with her home community, examining the role of reconnecting with plants in the prevention and management of type two diabetes.
“I feel like the most inspiring parts of that work are where my work intersects with community and is able to take my particular skill set to uphold and uplift and contribute to the work that's already happening around cultural renewal,” Joseph reflects.
Outside of academia, she owns Sḵwálwen Botanicals, which makes “plant-based skincare products that honour Indigenous knowledge and approaches to building relationships with place and also with self-care.” Joseph was inspired to start the company in grad school because she wanted to work with plants creatively in a way that reflected her love of them, sharing the healing that can come from building relationships with them, with nature and with the land.
When her daughter was young, she would walk along the trails, learning to identify, harvest and process plants. She would infuse them in oils to make salves and tea blends to gift in community. Formulating products and designing packages inspired her and Joseph loved creating messaging that amplified Indigenous perspectives and representation in the beauty industry.
Over the years, she’s learned from people in her community, her aunt, and elders. She’s inspired by her grandparents, great aunt and uncle. “A lot of the work I do, I feel, is to honour the fact that they weren't given that opportunity, because of their residential school experiences, and how they were forced to live their life in fight or flight and survival mode for a lot of years. They weren't able to learn a lot of these things within a community; they didn't have that opportunity,” Joseph relays.
After high school, she took time to travel before completing an outdoor guiding degree. Joseph worked in the field until she went back to university. A free lecture by ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner inspired her. While ethnobotany has many paths for exploration, she wanted to understand plant biochemistry and ecology to have an informed way of reconnecting with plants and to promote that reconnection safely within community.
“I'd always been told in high school, ‘you're not a science student, you're an art student.’ And yet, I had this really deep interest in the natural world.”
To achieve that goal, Joseph completed her undergraduate degree in biology, a very challenging course of study for her. After upgrading her math, physics and chemistry, she got into upper level botany courses. “From there, my master's was really the first time that I entered my community as an adult, as a researcher, but also as someone who was really tender about my own reconnections, or connection with identity,” she recalls, thinking about the crossroads she stood at in finding her place within her community through her studies, something that continued through her doctoral studies.
“I was having to face this history of systemic racism, anti-indigenous racism, but also doing this research to find this information.”
At school, Joseph didn’t see herself or her perspective reflected in her curriculum. “I was drawn to study plants for cultural and personal reasons. But through the Western scientific method, you have to remove yourself and look very objectively at the research subject,” she recounts, remembering the discomfort she felt with that approach.
With few Indigenous perspectives in her field’s literature, she relied on old ethnographies where her people and their ways were not appreciated. That experience led her to write journal articles and a recent book project to bridge that gap and contribute to a better experience for future Indigenous ethnobotany students.
Her advice for Indigenous students thinking about attending post-secondary studies is tender. She says, “Be strong. Find the things that bring you that strength. You don't have to know what you're going to do with your studies, but if you think about the things that inspired you to get there and start to envision this path and where you want it to lead for yourself, that can really help.”
“Find your own way that keeps you grounded, and know that the skills and knowledge you're gathering are going to serve you in your life and the ways that you want to make a contribution.”
If she could give advice to her younger self it would be to believe in herself and to create space for ongoing learning, not feeling pressured to know everything. She would tell herself to follow her heart and to nurture herself in the places she feels held in community or on the land.
To balance her mental health, she exercises and maintains a mindfulness or meditation practice, incorporating visualization and breathwork into her grounding practice. She makes space for the things that bring her joy, noting, “It's quite easy to spend all my days in front of the computer and not actually get outside and do that connecting on the land. Coming back to creating space for the ways that reset and feed you and bring you that strength is so important.”
As she works, she’s inspired by her ancestors and her children, who were born at a time she was learning and connecting to culture, history and people and to what it means to her to carry Squamish ancestry. Those sources of inspiration guide her decision-making and how she lives her life.
As an adult, Leigh Joseph has reflected on the personal aspects of reconnecting to culture through plants, and the places where she draws her strength and identity from. The theme has always been the land and plants and community, and that way of seeing the world has informed her perspective as an ethnobotanist. She got her start identifying, harvesting and processing plants to make gifts for her community. Now in her studies and the application of her research around community wellness, she’s been growing like the plants she loves into an even more precious gift to her community, as a knowledge keeper of plant medicines, getting to know them better so others can feel better.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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