There was something familiar and comforting about the bus. A crowd of people painted green vines and flowers on the exterior as it sat parked in a field near Frank’s Landing during the Indigenous Environmental Network’s annual Protecting Mother Earth Conference, held earlier this month.
This bus was indeed an old friend. It has a lot of history helping indigenous people; it served as a kitchen and then a treatment center for the Medic + Healer Council at the Standing Rock water protector camps. Now it’s been transformed into a bus for the Canoe Journey Herbalists, who are currently accompanying the approximately two-week-long annual Native American traditional canoe gathering along the Pacific coast of Washington and Canada. The journey is expected to culminate in a final stop in Puyallup, Washington, on July 28. Over 100 canoes from more than 70 tribes registered to participate this year.
Midwife Rhonda Grantham of the Cowlitz tribe is one of the herbalists accompanying the journey.
Although Grantham and other healers with the Canoe Journey Herbalists are prepared to tend to the sore muscles and throats as well as sunburned and mosquito-bitten skin of canoe pullers, their mission is far greater.
“This is about decolonizing herbalism,” Grantham said.
The Canoe Journey Herbalists includes other skilled healers volunteering their time and efforts in creating a mobile herbal healing bus to serve canoe pullers along the canoe journey route. The bus has housed this kind of work before.
The bus that herbalists will use to serve patients was originally used by Standing Rock water protectors. It was donated by volunteer groups Rising Tide North America and the Beehive Design Collective, said Linda Black Elk of the Catawba Nation. Black Elk is an instructor in ethnobotany at Standing Rock Tribal College and member of the Standing Rock Medic + Healer Council.
The Canoe Journey Herbalists are modeling their efforts off of the Standing Rock Medic and Healers Council. Members of the the council learned a great deal about people’s needs during their time at the Standing Rock camp.
Rhonda Grantham of the Cowlitz tribe is co-founder of the Canoe Journey Herbalists.
“Rather than going to the first aid tent for peroxide and antibiotic cream, many people came to us. They were aching for a deeper healing. We found we could help people with simple things like a foot bath or herbal salves,” Grantham recalled.
Modern herbalism often uses high-potency oils or tinctures that are handled like pharmaceuticals and delivered in microdoses. These practices may be overseen by individuals with a range of training—from vocational apprenticeships to degrees and professional certifications.
“We’ve forgotten about the power of a cup of herbal tea made from gentle plants we’ve grown or gathered ourselves,” she said.
The herbalists are indigenous-centered and -led and intend to teach people how to harvest plants sustainably as well as the importance of sharing both the plants themselves and the knowledge of their use.
“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 noted.
Bundles of donated cedar are stored in the sink of the Canoe Journey Herbalist bus.
Interest in herbalism and alternative healing has skyrocketed globally. According to a 2013 report from the National Institutes of Health, 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicinal products and supplements for some part of primary health care. In 2016, Americans spent $30.2 billion on complementary health approaches, such as herbal supplements, according to the NIH.
These supplements are pricey for those who want access to them, with fees both for the herbs and for the herbalist consultation. Anecdotally, a bottle of milk thistle used for liver health can cost around $45 while a visit to an herbal consultant might cost upward of $95.
Grantham also has concerns about the commercialization of herbalism leading to unsustainable harvesting practices. “Once herbs become commercialized, we see people acting like locusts when they harvest, leaving nothing for those who come after them,” she said.
Overcollection of medicinal plants is a global problem, according to the World Conservation Union. About 15,000 medicinal plant species may be threatened with extinction from overharvesting.
“I understand that people want to learn and be a part of this indigenous way of knowing, of gaining knowledge of plant medicines, but the true way to be gifted ancestral and plant wisdom is at the feet of our elders and in being of service to the community,” Grantham said.
Canoe Journey Herbalists offer non-Native herbalists the opportunity to volunteer their services along the canoe route and to donate plants to the project.
“We have a lot of caring allies who understand that White privilege has allowed them to acquire wealth. We give them a space here to be of service rather than taking, buying, and appropriating,” she said.
Herbal medicines created by the Canoe Journey Herbalists with pullers during the Intertribal Canoe Journey.
Canoe Journey Herbalists aren’t marketing their medicines. “We aren’t making blends that are going to be put in pretty bottles with fancy labels. Our medicines are created in community and are gifted to the community,” Grantham added.
This spirit of community sharing and healing is reflected by the theme for this year’s Tribal Canoe Journey, “Honoring Our Medicine.”
“We put our canoes in the water and travel and connect with one another as our ancestors did so long ago. During this weeklong gathering, we will celebrate and honor the water that sustains us,” Puyallup tribal chairman Bill Sterud said in a written statement.
The canoe journeys are contemporary revivals of an ancient tradition among Northwest tribes. Families traveled from one homeland to another, connecting and feasting with other communities. The journeys were revitalized in 1989 during the Paddle to Seattle festival.
“Our elders have taught us that water is a powerful medicine—a life-giving force that sustains, heals, and protects us,” Sterud added.
Grantham’s goal is to help Native and non-Native people establish a connection with land and plants.
“Caring for our own families, gardens, plants, and communities helps us reestablish connection and sense of caretaking of the land rather than just harvesting plants out of existence,” she said.
“We’ve forgotten that we are all healers. We don’t have to go to school or memorize names in Latin; we all have access to plants and can comfort ourselves with our plant ancestors,” Grantham added. “Just as the Intertribal Canoe Journey has revitalized our culture, we hope that plant medicine will be one more pathway to connection and community healing.”
Mary Annette Pember is an award-winning journalist, photographer, and member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. She writes about Native issues, people, and culture for Rewire News.