Náakw: herbalism in bloom
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.
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.”
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.’”
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.”
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 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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”