Náakw: herbalism in bloom

 Donna Wolfe has been harvesting northern plants since she was a child, but her hobby recently turned into a profession. She turns them into teas, salves, ointments and other medicines

Donna Wolfe has been harvesting northern plants since she was a child, but her hobby recently turned into a profession. She turns them into teas, salves, ointments and other medicines

Barreling down a southern Yukon highway in her bright blue Ford F-150, Donna Wolfe spots a large cluster of yellow and pink fluttering in the wind. Hitting the brakes, she throws her truck into reverse, keeping her gaze on the cluster of colour without taking a moment to look into the rear-view mirror.

Wolfe is searching for plants. Specific ones. Today, it’s goldenrod, strawberry bushes and red elder: traditional herbal medicines for treating skin ailments.

Pulling over, Wolfe jumps out of the truck and heads straight for the bushes, determined. Her stern expression quickly lightens into a smile. Just before the tall grass tapers off into thick boreal forest, there’s a gathering of bright yellow flowers. She’s found a batch of goldenrod.

 While picking goldenrod and strawberry bushes, Wolfe spots arnica flowers - something she usually goes over the Alaskan border to collect.

While picking goldenrod and strawberry bushes, Wolfe spots arnica flowers - something she usually goes over the Alaskan border to collect.

Infused with oil or crushed into a poultice, the small plant covered in thin yellow spore-like petals can be used to treat broken and wounded skin. Wolfe hopes to use the plant to make a skin salve for a nine-year-old boy in Carcross with severe eczema and psoriasis.

“It’s all over. Since he was a baby, he’s had eczema,” Wolfe says, looking up to fend off oncoming tears. “When I see that little boy, everyday he’s itching everywhere. They have to put stuff on his hands at nine years old because he’s constantly itching; he even takes off his shoes and scratches the bottom of his foot.”

Wolfe doesn’t know the boy’s name or his family, but she wants to help. And the 52-year-old medicine-maker wants nothing in return. She picks herbs day in and day out to help people both in and outside her community of Carcross, in southern Yukon. Wolfe and her colleagues at the Carcross/Tagish First Nation Learning Centre have started collecting lists of medicines requested by community elders and she sends caribou-leaf tea to a girl in Prince George, B.C., to help treat her symptoms of lupus. Wolfe says that people come to her from across the country and the world, and she happily send her products anywhere they’re needed -- without charging a dime. 

“It just irks me bad. And just to see people suffer. I’ve watched people suffer long enough and it’s just so self-satisfying to help them,” says Wolfe. “That’s the thing, it’s to help people, not to make money.” 

 As an environmental monitor, Wolfe wants to protect the plants around her from people who may harvest unsustainably or damage them.

As an environmental monitor, Wolfe wants to protect the plants around her from people who may harvest unsustainably or damage them.

Officially, Wolfe is an environmental monitor for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, a protector of the land and the water. Her job is to make sure no one is harming the land, lakes and rivers she and her community hunts, fishes and lives on. Harvesting and making herbal medicines became part of her work only over the last couple of years, when she continued getting caught picking plants as a hobby while out on patrols.

“I’ve been doing it since I was a kid and it was just my passion,” explains Wolfe. “They said ‘well do you want to just keep doing it and do workshops?’ and I just said ‘OK.’”

Donna Wolfe and Donna Johns - affectionately called the Double Ds - collect arnica flowers and infuse them in olive oil. They turn the jar over every 24 hours, to make sure nothing dries up. Johns swears by arnica-infused oil for aching muscles, something she experiences every year doing the Yukon Quest.

For Indigenous and non-Indigenous herbalists alike, interest in the age-old healing practice of making and taking herbal medicines is common in the North. For medicine-makers like Wolfe, the popularity of their work hints that the traditional cultural practice is blooming. 

Wolfe says community members want natural and locally sourced remedies. 

“It’s been a huge revival, you wouldn’t believe. There are people who come up to us and say, ‘I’m sick of taking pills, can you do something for me?’” says Wolfe. “Everyone’s coming and bugging me for something.”

 Wolfe plans to use the strawberry bushes she collected as part of a plant bundle for a young boy suffering from eczema. Alongside goldenrod and red elder, the roots from the strawberry bush is meant to soothe the condition.

Wolfe plans to use the strawberry bushes she collected as part of a plant bundle for a young boy suffering from eczema. Alongside goldenrod and red elder, the roots from the strawberry bush is meant to soothe the condition.

In the flower patch on the side of road, Wolfe pulls out a cigarette and rubs out tobacco from the end, scattering it over the plants. She always says a short prayer thanking the creator for providing the medicine she’s about to harvest and asking for help for those who need it. 

Then she draws a pair of bright purple craft scissors.

Wolfe says that a tobacco offering is a way to show respect to the land before plants are taken away from it. Once the tobacco settles, Wolfe and Johns snip a few stems of goldenrod, pick arnica flowers and assess strawberry bushes.

Wolfe is from the Teslin Tlingit First Nation in southeast Yukon. But for nearly four decades home has been Carcross, the small community straddling the shores of Nares and Bennett lakes.

“I just came here for the weekend 37 years ago,” Wolfe says with a laugh. “The people here are way nicer than anywhere else I’ve ever been.”

In addition to being a medicine-maker and environmental monitor, Wolfe is a hunter, trapper, fisherwoman, sewer and hairstylist. She jokes that she’s done just about every job for the First Nation other than becoming chief.

Every Thursday, Wolfe and her colleague Donna Johns, 42, host medicine-making workshops at the learning centre. There, they teach community members and anyone who would like to learn – including each other – how to harvest and prepare different types of herbal medicines and plant-based products.

“If someone asks for a certain workshop or a certain thing and I don’t know how to do it, I’ll haul somebody in here,” says Wolfe. “And then I’m learning.” 

She’s also taking a year-long online course to advance her knowledge in herbal medicine.  

“I can’t wait. In one year I’ll know a whole of a lot more than I know right now,” Wolfe says with a laugh. 

 Since Wolfe’s medicines are in demand, she jokes that she is never able to use any of it for herself: “I’ve got an aching back right now, but I never use my own stuff."

Since Wolfe’s medicines are in demand, she jokes that she is never able to use any of it for herself: “I’ve got an aching back right now, but I never use my own stuff."

 Johns says that when her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer, the doctors gave him six months to live. Hoping it would ease his pain, she sent him caribou leaves, devil’s club, willow and balsam. "Can’t stop it as far as we found,” says Johns. “But it can help it.” He died two years later.

Johns says that when her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer, the doctors gave him six months to live. Hoping it would ease his pain, she sent him caribou leaves, devil’s club, willow and balsam. "Can’t stop it as far as we found,” says Johns. “But it can help it.” He died two years later.

For Johns, working with herbal medicines has always been a goal, but there has never been a real incentive until now.

“I’ve been interested in medicine forever,” says Johns as she flips through a book featuring the various wild medicinal herbs that grow in the Pacific Northwest. “My grandma taught me a bunch of stuff, but now to get this in-depth, like a job, that was so cool.”

Wolfe shows how the red elder tree gets its name. She slices a small fragment of the branch, and in a matter of minutes, the pristine white interior starts turning a blood red.

Wolfe is also getting First Nations youth involved in the cultural practice. Rae-Anne Collings started working with the First Nation in an environmental monitor training position. Now, she’s working full time with both Wolfe and Johns.

“It feels really good, I like it. Just being able to go out and get stuff for people and help them for when they’re sick,” says the 24-year-old from Carcross. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, just kind of on and off, and now I’m really getting back into it.”

For First Nations, the use of plants for medicines has been passed down through oral tradition for millenia. Wolfe learned most of what she knows from her great aunt, Virginia Smarch. 

“She taught me how to farm and how to do medicines and how to hunt and fish and trap.”

 What Wolfe collects during her patrols, she brings back to the Learning Centre in Carcross. Her floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with jars of red elder, caribou leaves, rose petals, Hudson's Bay tea and more. 

What Wolfe collects during her patrols, she brings back to the Learning Centre in Carcross. Her floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with jars of red elder, caribou leaves, rose petals, Hudson's Bay tea and more. 

For non-First Nations herbalists, there are a number of resources available to explore traditional medicine harvesting and making. Books like The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North have become popular among Yukon herbal enthusiasts. Beverley Gray, the book’s author and owner of a small herb shop in downtown Whitehorse, hosts walk and talks with community members to teach about the medicinal plants growing in the North. 

Gray gently plucks a stem of yarrow from a little bush peering out of a sidewalk. She passes it around a small group of keeners, all out in the misting rain to learn about herbal medicines. Before launching into the health benefits of the plant, Gray urges each person to feel the texture of the crushed leaves and smell their citrus-like scent.

 Gray is only steps away from her shop, Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse. She explains that yarrow is often used to stimulate the immune system; when someone catches a cold, dried yarrow tea can help soothe the symptoms. Gray also mentions that yarrow can be applied topically to stop bleeding. By pressing a bundle of its leaves to a cut or a wound, the yarrow can actually act as a coagulant.

Gray is only steps away from her shop, Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse. She explains that yarrow is often used to stimulate the immune system; when someone catches a cold, dried yarrow tea can help soothe the symptoms. Gray also mentions that yarrow can be applied topically to stop bleeding. By pressing a bundle of its leaves to a cut or a wound, the yarrow can actually act as a coagulant.

 Gray says that you don’t have to look far to find plants with medicinal properties, and yarrow is a perfect example of that. When it comes to the Yukon, it can be found everywhere.

Gray says that you don’t have to look far to find plants with medicinal properties, and yarrow is a perfect example of that. When it comes to the Yukon, it can be found everywhere.

Another step, another plant. This time, it’s birch. Before listing the tree’s health benefits, Gray starts shuffling through her handbag and eventually produces a narrow glass bottle. Once the cap is off, she dabs a thimble of thick amber liquid into her palm and tastes it before passing the bottle of birch syrup around.

The syrup is a sweet treat, but it’s the leaves, bark and mushrooms that carry the benefits. A rich source of vitamin C, Gray says that birch can be used internally for pain relief, and externally for aging skin.

Chatting her way through Teegatha’OH Zheh Park, she pauses near fireweed, a balsam poplar, a spruce tree, a willow, an aspen, and rose bushes before wrapping up her tour at a patch of northern bedstraw.

Gray speaks of teas, salves, tinctures and creams and how natural products can cool inflammation, improve the respiratory system, cleanse the blood or act as a sunscreen.

 (Left to right) Fireweed, willow, rose and aspen. Gray says fireweed is the talk of the town at the moment when it comes to medicinal plants. It has anti-inflammatory properties. 

(Left to right) Fireweed, willow, rose and aspen. Gray says fireweed is the talk of the town at the moment when it comes to medicinal plants. It has anti-inflammatory properties. 

Although she arrived in the Yukon with her own know-how over 20 years ago, Gray says that meeting with First Nations elders is what firmly put her on the herbalist path.  

“They know the berries inside out, they know the food on the land because they’re hunting, they’re trapping, they’re fishing. They know their trees and medicines,” says Gray.

But Gray is not opposed to the alternative. “A lot of people may assume that because you’re a herbalist, you’re anti-medical and anti-pharmaceutical – and I’m not,” she says. “We can work hand in hand, and I think that’s really beautiful.”

Laura Salmon, the director of the First Nations Health programs at Whitehorse General Hospital, is on the same page.

“We wanted to make sure that there was something for First Nations that’s traditional, comforting, and healing,” says Salmon.

 Salmon says the program doesn’t conduct studies that compare the effects of herbal medicine to modern medicine; they rely on patient reports instead. “If someone feels better after taking traditional medicine, then we’re here to support that." 

Salmon says the program doesn’t conduct studies that compare the effects of herbal medicine to modern medicine; they rely on patient reports instead. “If someone feels better after taking traditional medicine, then we’re here to support that." 

When it comes to herbal medicine, the hospital lets patients bring in what they need or calls on elders to help with preparation of medicinal plants. 

“We don’t necessarily consider ourselves the healers,” says Salmon. “We really rely on the traditional knowledge that we have from elders.”

When patients request specific medicines or ceremonies like smudges, the program notifies the patient’s physician and ensures that the hospital staff are aware of the request. Salmon says they are not seeking permission. Instead, the hospital staff puts patients at the centre of the decision-making process.

“We certainly don’t want to do any harm to patients by something that could be an interaction, but we also don’t feel that it’s up to the western medicine practitioner to actually decide what someone should have or shouldn’t have that’s based on traditional values and knowledge,” says Salmon.

Wolfe also believes people should be able to make their own decisions about what kind of treatment they would like to receive. 

“They should have the right to put whatever they want inside themselves,” she says.

Even if the decision is out of their hands, Salmon says the doctors at the hospital have supported the program since Day 1. She says herbal medicine is a low-risk yet powerful healer, and helps the patients feel like themselves.

 The kitchen in the healing space at Whitehorse General Hospital is equipped for medicine-making to a degree. “Elders prefer us to have a little less on hand, because some of the power and the healing properties in the medicine have to do with the harvesting for a specific person based on what their needs are,” says Salmon. "The healing energy from the person goes into the medicine.” 

The kitchen in the healing space at Whitehorse General Hospital is equipped for medicine-making to a degree. “Elders prefer us to have a little less on hand, because some of the power and the healing properties in the medicine have to do with the harvesting for a specific person based on what their needs are,” says Salmon. "The healing energy from the person goes into the medicine.” 

The hospital’s healing room facilitates that. In addition to a lounge area for family members and friends and a kitchen equipped for medicine-making, the healing room is designed with tradition in mind. Spacious enough to fit more than 30 people, the circular healing room is built with stones on the outside and wood on the inside. In the corner stands a small fireplace, and the walls are adorned with handmade wooden plaques that show painted illustrations of the medicinal herbs found in the North. 

“There’s definitely those sentiments of comfort, home, and identity – and being allowed to practice their traditions as part of who they are,” says Salmon.

Meanwhile, striding from balsam tree to balsam tree, Wolfe is comfortable in the thick bush. Armed with a tin mug and a sharp-pointed stick, she’s collecting the trees’ pitch with her small team of volunteers. Donna Johns jokes about how her and her friends used to combine the gooey resin and pitch from the trees to chew on like gum when they were young. 

Balsam pitch can be used as an antiseptic for cuts, bruises or infections, and Wolfe says that if the bark is stripped properly, it can be boiled into a tea for relieving respiratory issues. “When you’re sick, you drink the tea of the bark and it takes all the poisons out of the body.”

Wolfe is in less of a jovial mood. She points out where someone had started a fire directly under a tree and burnt its trunk, then another spot where people had trampled and urinated all over growing plants. And what makes her face drop into a sombre grimace are the chunks of wood sliced out of the balsams like meat butchered off a dead animal.

“This tree, with its root system, it’s going to fall over,” Wolfe says as she runs her hand over the dry trunk as if to comfort the dying plant. “They killed the whole tree.” 

As she looks out to the crystalline lake at the edge of where the balsam trees grow, one of her favourites, Wolfe sighs. 

“I feel so sorry for some of the people who can’t help themselves. So it gives me satisfaction to help them. That’s my thank you, is to know that they’re better.”