a conversation with Ancestral Apothecary School
Like many of us, the visionaries at the heart of Ancestral Apothecary School have had a turbulent year. It is no small feat for herbalists, trained through deep, physical connection with the natural world, to move into the virtual domain of online classes: to continue their work, the teachers had to retool their curriculum, build a new teaching platform, and spend long hours in front of glowing screens. Nevertheless, Atava Garcia Swiecicki, Abi Huff, and Myrna Cabán Lezcano were willing to spend some more time on a video link talking to us about the history, vision, and work of the Ancestral Apothecary School. Their project is at an important transition point, as Abi and Myrna move into leadership roles and work to safeguard and expand what was built over the last two decades. They are coordinating a round of fundraising and community support that will ensure the long-term sustainability of Ancestral Apothecary. You can learn more about the school, including details on Cecemmana, specific classes in ancestral herbal medicine, and how to support this work, here. For more on the BIPOC + POC Cecemmana Scholarship Fund, visit this page.
Cecemmana students spend the day at Gill Tract Farm before the pandemic with Ancestral Apothecary founder Atava Garcia Swiecicki and land steward/activist Loa Niumeitolu:
“Feel the constant communion with nature that we experience with each breath”, herbalist and clinician Abi Huff reminds us. “It is imperative that we embody this wholeness if we want to transform our future.” Ancestral Apothecary, a school of folk, herbal, and indigenous medicine, has charted out a path for this journey to wholeness. It starts, as Abi tells it, from the realization that we have all been uprooted from our Earth connection and the communion she describes. The next step comes through discovering and exploring the plants of our ancestors: the medicinal herbs, foods, and practices surrounding them.
Myrna Cabán Lezcano, a community herbalist and cultural organizer, remembers watching their abuelo(grandfather) picking pigeon peas and feeding the chickens in their native Puerto Rico. Years later, a small but powerful plant became a guide to remembering and reconnecting with those childhood rhythms: it was Mimosa pudica, known as moriviví, the life and death, shy, sensitive plant. Myrna talks about encountering this plant at a crucial, difficult time, and retells a story with themes familiar to many herbalists: plants not only provide direct support to our health when we need it most, but also seem to show up in our lives at just the right time. Have you ever noticed this?
“The ancestral plants: our bodies, our spirit, our DNA knows them,” explains Atava Garcia Swiecicki, who started the work that is now Ancestral Apothecary over two decades ago in California’s East Bay (Oakland, CA area). As modern research dives into the chemistry of medicinal plants, we are starting to understand how this might work: through a long journey of co-evolution, our human DNA seems attuned to signals from the botanical world. These signals may include plant constituents such as polyphenols from berries and leafy greens, which can play an important role in maintaining healthy well-being. But this partnership between people and plants is not news to Atava, whose heritage draws on a mix of Mexican, Polish, Hungarian, and Diné (Navajo) ancestry. “Our relationship with plants has always been there, like the Mexican relationship to corn.” Recognizing and honoring these relationships can be a starting point to explore our ancestral history, which may include painful and traumatic periods — but always includes plants, too. “Plants are the reason we survived,” Atava continues. “They’re steady.”
As an example of how folks who attend the school rediscover their own history of botanical relationship, she points to the Ancestral Medicine Project. In this part of their coursework, students embark on a process of research and attunement by diving into what Atava calls their “ancestral field”: a blend of food, medicine, and folklore woven through the daily lives of their ancestors. Through rich, interactive presentations, students share insights and discoveries with the group, and are expected to highlight meaningful connections made during the process. “This way,” Atava explains, “everyone feels empowered. Everyone represents their own ancestors, so that everyone is truly present.”
The results of this work go beyond empowering individual herbalists: by being a hub for learning and exchange across different cultures, the Ancestral Apothecary School offers foundational contributions to the modern American herbal movement. First, by allowing herbalists and students to represent the diverse and authentic traditions that weave through our communities, we begin to give credit for wisdom and botanical knowledge where credit is due: Central American curanderismo, Caribbean herbalism, and the indigenous practices of North America (to name just a few) cannot be conflated with or adopted by a generic “Western” herbal tradition (even European herbal medicine has unique and diverse roots that cannot be reduced to a single homogenous system). Additionally, to help maintain the diversity and vibrancy of our herbal traditions, it is important that Black and indigenous students be able to “see their experiences reflected in their teachers”, as Abi puts it, “in a curriculum that harnesses ancestral plants through energetic and sensory connection. The healing practices of the future are about us being able to go back in time and examine what we mean by ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’.” Abi, whose mother is Filipina and whose father is southern Black American, speaks about the implications of this type of herbal training. “I had noticed that mainstream herbal education always included an element of commerce, of business, and of dissecting plant parts and people, too.” The classes at Ancestral Apothecary, in contrast, allowed her to “dive into the intuitive, the human, our blood and bone relationship to the natural world.” While the modern scientific understanding of plants, constituents, pharmacy and therapeutics are part of the instruction, it is the grounded, traditional practices that help grow a solid herbalist.
Furthermore, training herbalists from a place of authentic, traditional experience makes for teachers and practitioners who can speak to the unique challenges faced by many members of our herbal community: folks who may have been intentionally excluded, or whose stories and perspectives aren’t normally considered when creating class offerings, herbal products, or clinical recommendations. “Name a Black, trans clinical herbalist,” Myrna challenges us, “who could share the important healing tools (spiritually and clinically) that folks from that community need.” Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), along with folks from the queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming communities, can often feel excluded from the classes, events, and clinical offerings available in their area in part because none of the teachers and practitioners reflect their personal experiences. In Myrna’s view, it is important to acknowledge this, but the work can’t stop there. “When you can see what the issue is, and you know you need to make more inclusive spaces, to recognize the land, to honor BIPOC knowledge — but you don’t do the work? That is a problem that White herbalists need to face.”
“We suffer a loss, collectively, when we over-intellectualize and stop the physical practices and self-care skills taught by traditions like curanderismo,” Atava tells us, echoing Abi’s focus on building the “blood and bone relationship” to our world. Over the last decade, she has also heeded Myrna’s call to engage in this important work, despite its challenges. “Even though it was tough, I see it as my spirit offering,” Atava continues, “and it led to the launch of our Cecemmana course.” This nine-month training, whose name is from Nahuatl (the language of communities native to Central America and southern Mexico) and means “scattering seeds on the earth”, gathers these seeds of relationship, embodied practice, and spirit-centered work and plants them in the world through a comprehensive herbalist training program. Crucially, the program is taught from the perspective of people of color, with a focus on traditional, indigenous ways of connecting with nature and self. And because today, due to deep and ongoing inequities and oppression, Black Americans can face significant challenges accessing classes and herbal training, Ancestral Apothecary has instituted a BIPOC+POC Scholarship Fund to provide tuition assistance for their offerings. In 2020, they were able to deliver 56 full scholarships to their inclusive, BIPOC-centered programs — thanks to a fund built entirely from community support.
“I had my first vision of plants talking some years ago, sitting in clinic with a client,” Abi recalls, as she shares ideas about what led her to explore the deeper, almost spiritual side of working with the power of plants. After many years of study, including meditation on her own ancestral legacy, it was in joining the work of Ancestral Apothecary that she felt her calling “open up fully to ancestors, to passion” — and to a direct channel to the voices of medicinal plants. That is, in part, the promise that working with the plants of our lineage, the plants of our deepest dreams, offers us: a meaningful, direct connection to the green world, a touchstone from where the work of inclusion, understanding, and mutual support can begin. “Growing moriviví in California is a way to remember the sweetness that I held as a little one,” explains Myrna. “Before the trauma, before the hurt, before the weight that can come with adulthood — to remember the plant is part of me.” We close where we began: by recognizing that it is the herbal traditions of our elders that can lead us back to a living, embodied communion with nature and the child-like joy that brings.
As a final note, Atava explains that we need to keep focused attention on members of the herbal community who may not share the advantages and access many of us take for granted — including folks from the BIPOC, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming communities. As an example, consider how easy or difficult it might be for you to access land for growing, harvesting, or even getting to know living, breathing medicinal plants. “The landless herbalist, the landless farmer, is a reality”, she reminds us. “It is hard to find a safe piece of land to take our students out into nature, where they won’t be met with exclusion or even violence.” If you know of good wild spots around San Francisco, or if you feel like joining or supporting the work of Ancestral Apothecary, please get in touch. And together may we find our own ancestral path, recognize and support the work of Black and indigenous herbalists in our community, and be held in the sweetness of the green.
Myrna leads a socially distanced plant walk with Cecemmana students on Ohlone territory:
Follow Ancestral Apothecary School on Instagram at @ancestralapothecary and on Facebook.
To learn more about Abi Huff’s work, follow her on @_thestingingnettle_
Click here to learn more about Atava Garcia Swieciki’s work.
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