Traditional Medicine: a Conversation with Renee Davis

traditional medicine

Renee Davis is a community herbalist with the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic & writer who believes that botanical medicine has the capacity to revolutionize how we connect and relate to ourselves, each other and our habitat.

I first came across Renee Davis’s work via the world of social media… I was so impressed with the way she placed her discussion of herbalism within a larger context of systems thinking, ecological medicine and more, something I’m also really interested in doing but I never have time to do it! Her website: Gold Roots and Threads is a wealth of information and resources, worth spending time with when you have a big cup of tea. Below Renee talks with me about her recently completed thesis, “Does the cultural use of local plants enable coping with diabetes and generational trauma in Salish tribal communities?” written for her MA in Whole Systems Design from Antioch University Seattle. Thanks so much, Renee!

Ann: First of all, congratulations on finishing your thesis – a huge undertaking and a tremendous accomplishment! There is so much in your thesis that I’d love to talk about, about the cultural construction of illness and more. But first, can you talk a bit about the larger questions you were interested in exploring in your Masters work?

Renee: Hey Ann, thanks so much! It’s exciting to talk about this with you. And an honor also!

I’ve long admired all the work you do here on the blog and with the Numen film. Numen was very inspiring to me when it first came out and helped shape my thinking on these issues. This is a really exciting time to be an herbalist.

I spent the last 2 or so years doing a program in Whole Systems Design–a program that combines general systems theory (general properties and behavior of complex adaptive systems, such as organisms, ecosystems, cities, etc.) and resilience science, applied design, and social change and innovation. In this program were people from many paths and professions: community organizers, architects, entrepreneurs, business and organizational consultants, permaculturists… I could keep going. But there were no community herbalists or ethnobotanists in the program. I was there because I was interested in ethnobotanical innovation, and catalyzing social and ecological health through community herbalism and related practices. So I followed my gut here, basically. I had a burning curiosity to synthesize and try to understand the relationship between plants, people, and social change. Through my years there, it was very experimental to be pursuing it. But my professors were very gracious and intrigued, and I’m pretty stubborn. It is still a pretty fringe concept to most people.

A few things kept gnawing at me while I was there. Firstly, the potential of herbal practice is simply not realized in our society. Even in conversations with some of the most forward-thinking social change activists, herbalism is stuck in the ‘cutesy’ zone. That’s unfortunate.

I was also intrigued by the new constructs and definitions of health that were coming from the ecological medicine movement and resilience science. The work being done with resilience science and ecological theory was really important to me as a developing herbalist, and I saw a lot of potential in those articulations. I foresee these trans-discipline areas of knowledge becoming increasingly important as we begin to tackle some of these urgent, systemic issues we face as a society.

These ideas–that human health is connected with plant, animal, and ecosystem health; that diversity is required for resilience; and of the cycles of adaptation–are very old ones. But articulated in a new way, one that’s applicable to the social and institutional issues we face now, they’ve become innovative. I keep coming back to the paradoxical nature of this work. So ancient, yet so innovative. I love it. And that’s good, when something’s paradoxical like that. You’re onto something. You’re on your way to grasping wholeness.


Ann: And how did you come to focus on the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center? Had you been working there previously or involved in some way? Maybe can you give a brief description of the program and what drew you to this work in particular.

traditional medicine

Camas (Camassia quamash) blooming in a praire in Washington state, a traditional Salish food source.

Renee: I had known the director of the program, Elise Krohn, for some years. We had mutual friends here in Olympia, and I just recently finished studying with a former teacher of hers, Joyce Netishen of Fire Rose Farm. I’d also spent a few years as a researcher with the Center for World Indigenous Studies under Dr. Rudolph Ryser. CWIS did independent research and consulting work for tribal governments. I’d spent my time there in research on tribal health and environmental policy and community health. Elise has done graduate work with Dr. Ryser at CWIS before I came on board. So there was a good amount of overlap there and we were connected in a few ways. I had also had a few years of experience working in tribal communities in research settings, and there was a context and precedent in which to work.

And I was interested in the program because it is powerful and making a huge difference in tribal communities. It’s a very unique thing. Its simplicity–reconnecting people with native plant traditions–was exciting, and it was really touching people here in Salish country. And I saw a great amount of integrity in the work that Elise, June O’Brien, and others were doing  So I had a background and context, and this was the first time I was working there on site.

The Native Plants Nutrition Program is a culturally-grounded ethnobotanical education program near the Squaxin Island reservation at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center (and is, I should note, administered through the Northwest Indian College Cooperative Extension Program). The program does two main things:

  • Holds weekly native plants classes with patients of the center undergoing recovery from chemical addition;
  • Conducts ‘Train the Trainers’ workshops, which trains tribal educators on a wide variety of things: community diabetes prevention, herbal medicine making, and more.

When I was there, I was really paying attention to cultural plants education in the context of assisting patients in their recovery as well as preventing diabetes. But the learning gained from that experience was deeply transformative. What really stood out to me was the importance of culturally grounded education and practice, for one. It also really challenged my understanding of plants in relation to community and social healing. It’s one of the things I’m still working on–synthesizing and making meaning of this. I’m actually preparing a revision of my thesis for this reason. A lot of things are sinking in now that I’ve had some time away from it.

These kinds of experiences begin by seeking answers, and have a funny way of opening you up to more questions. I also felt like a wee baby again in this work, honored to even be able to learn and observe. I’m still very much synthesizing it. Elise is pushing me to take it further, and I greatly appreciate that. I don’t think I took it far enough in the paper, to be honest, so I’ll be doing a substantial revision soon.

It’s something those of us who identify as social changers/activists have to identify for ourselves–how we move the work forward, carry it, create something original and beautiful. How we inspire, uplift, and support others. And I’m such a young one, still figuring it out, still road testing ideas, curious as to how this work can move forward and take off. But you have to get out there. You have to try.

Anyway, I digressed a bit. The point is that I was led here by passion, love for plants & people, curiosity, and focused effort. And there’s certainly lots more learning ahead!


 Ann: It was fascinating to read that American Indian and Alaska Native communities tend to attribute diabetes to cultural factors – to generational trauma and social oppression – rather than genetic and lifestyle factors as is typically the case in a biomedical model. Can you say more about this?

Renee: It is fascinating, and I think it’s much more important than is given credit in clinical research & practice. Basically, it’s just that different people have different stories, beliefs, and definitions of health & illness. And these varying beliefs influence peoples’ experiences of illness and treatment.

People that regularly interact & communicate build shared understandings of the world. This process is called social construction. From these shared notions, cultural beliefs and constructs are created. This is why we have definitions of health that vary among cultures, and why we can have culture-bound syndromes–or illnesses that are manifest among only one cultural group. It’s really fascinating.

So that means that we can look at Western notions of health and illness and recognize that they are built on cultural beliefs on the nature of reality–notably, that of Cartesian dualism, reductionist, mechanism, and other trends established during the Scientific Revolution. But that’s not necessarily the case for other cultures. So when we’re in multicultural settings, we have to really pay attention to underlying notions of health & illness if health intervention programs are going to work.

traditional medicine

Portion of the garden site

In the case of the diabetes epidemic, I really paid attention to the narrative of the disease as dictated by Western biomedicine and, in contrast, indigenous peoples of Western North America. And I learned that they are operating on very different narratives. Western biomedicine says diabetes is caused by Indian genes, poor diet & lifestyle, etc. To many tribal people, this is a very doom and gloom story–if diabetes is caused by bad genes, what can you do about it? It’s disempowering. It also shames and blames Indian identity. Not surprisingly, many medical interventions, like getting diagnosed and treated, are traumatic in their own way. Getting one’s blood drawn and scrutinized for glucose levels, for example, reminds many of having their blood scrutinized for tribal enrollment. It can be felt as another face of social control.

Many tribal people, in contrast, understand the diabetes epidemic as an expression of the generational trauma they’ve experienced. Things like European epidemics, Indian boarding schools, nutritional trauma, environmental degradation, and reservation life were really hard hits to Salish life and culture. And these wounds span generations. And this is cited as the cause of the diabetes epidemic in tribal communities. So in this sense, there is definite spiritual and cultural dimension in diabetes etiology with Salish people.

So you have these 2 ways of looking at diabetes: one focuses on genes & diet, the other addressing cultural wounds. So when you build a diabetes program based in a biomedical understanding and try to implement it in a community that sees generational trauma as the primary cause, the program will fail. However, if you create a tribal diabetes program based in their cultural understandings, then you can get somewhere. So that was the big lesson: know the mental models of who you’re working with, and meet the people where they are. Not where you are.

traditional medicine

A stand of Trillium ovatum

But that’s why the Native Plants Nutrition Program is so transformative. By educating people about traditional foods and medicines, those cultural wounds are being healed. So it’s addressing the real issue. This is really something to think about, especially people who are in clinical practice or in public health. Plants can be multidimensional with regards to their healing capacities.

It gives herbalists a lot to contemplate. Plants are so entwined with our traditions and ancestry, as well as our present lives. So herbal practice has many more facets that just addressing physical issues. It has incredible social importance. It’s something I’m very inspired by. Things like Numen, Elise’s work, herbalists like Corinne Boyer and Kiva Rose who are working to strengthen our connection to our stories, our place–it’s very cool, and it’s an important movement to advance.


Ann: I love the comment by an interviewee bout the power of taking the class on native plants. You quote, “Somewhere in there, whether they realize it or not, something is coming alive in them. They’re remembering who thy are, where they came from, and where they’re going… Whether they stay clean and sober is not the issue. It’s the seeds that are planted, the spirits that are brought alive….” And he concludes, “It’s amazing that one little plant can do all that.”

Can you say more? About how one little plant can do all that?

Renee: That’s one of my favorite quotes from Stephanie Thompkins, the current director of the center. June O’Brien, who founded NWITC, is one of the most inspiring plant medicine carriers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. On founding the program, she really emphasized having the plants physically present in all places possible, to anchor their presence with the patients. She set the tone with having the whole endeavor grounded in native plants traditions. She set the tone with having the whole endeavor grounded in native plants traditions, and Elise carried the work forward through her efforts at the Center with Bruce Miller, Skokomish elder and teacher.

When I talked with her about the program–how she built it, the intentions that went into it, etc.–she had profound things to say.

In her experience, working with the plants over the course of her life, plants could call people home, and awaken their spirits. Especially here in Salish country, these people evolved with these plants.

There’s a special relationship there. Not that newcomers can’t have a special relationship…it’s just a different way of relating. So these plants help these people and remind them of where they came from, and who they are as people. Not who society tells them they are, but who they are as creatures on this majestic planet. Plants touched their spirits.

traditional medicine

Raspberry leaves and stems drying to be used in tea

It’s hard to characterize how people are touched by plants. It happens in so many ways–certainly something herbalists are constantly observing and sussing out. For many, the beauty of the world of flora opens hearts and awakens spirit. Or maybe it’s the simple empowerment of knowing how to take care of your self and family with the abundant plants around you. Perhaps their complex pharmacological actions captivate you. Maybe that cup of linden flower tea reminds you of tea with your grandmother. Or a combination of all. Or totally different ones. With this program, plants reconnect people with culture, which was very healing. I think there’s tremendous potential with that for people everywhere. It’s a growing trend that we are losing our medicine traditions, and a sense of our ancestry in general. I think being rooted in ancestry is powerful, and plants help facilitate this connection. To grow into a tall tree, one must have strong roots. Right?


Ann: What other insights stand out as particularly important, especially relating to how plants can heal?

Renee: Well, something clearly stands out as an insight about plants, to me anyway: the meaning and stories that surround a certain plant in a particular context is very, very important. It’s so easy for many things today to be severed from their cultural context. But we then lose grasp of its meaning.

       The stories and history that surround plants can be just as healing as any constituent they may contain.

I think there are broad implications for this in clinic practice and education–a call to be more aware of cultural context of plant practices. When herbalists are more aware and skilled in the use of all that surrounds that which we call a plant, we can practice herbalism in a way that has profound social meaning. And that’s what this program–the Native Plants Nutrition Program–did. With great skill they’ve used plants in their cultural context to revitalize and heal communities. That’s really special, and there are powerful lessons in that.

There’s also the ability of the plants to wake people up, to help them remember who they area. June O’Brien talks about this at length in the paper. In her experience, the plants held this capacity–to reconnect people to their spirit, the present, and to their ancestral roots.


The broad leafs of Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum)

Ann: This isn’t so much related to the content of your thesis and more to the ways you’ve used your blog as a place to share ideas you’ve been exploring in your graduate work. And you’ve also made your thesis available on-line, which is fantastic! I personally find the world of blogs to be a bit overwhelming, there is so much information on-line now, I have a hard time figuring out how to access and sink into the material that is really worthwhile. But you seem to have figured that out. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you use your blog to express, share and connect with others around your ideas about plants, healing and whole systems.

Renee: Oh man, the blog. Honestly, it’s something I grapple with regularly. I essentially approach the blog as place to work out my ideas. It can be a good tool for that kind of organizing. It can also be a bit awkward because, hey, it’s public. So I always feel like I’m walking this tightrope because I use it to help me suss out my own ideas and connections, all while being aware that others are watching me do it. And my writing style seems to be all over the place because I write to different audiences. I’m definitely working on that more, now that I’m not so immersed in academia.

So, that said, I’m *always* aware that people don’t have a lot of time. And especially on the internet, people’s attention spans are very short. And a blog, as a medium, is not the best venue for long papers, books, or most things that require time and attention. So I try to present what’s appropriate for the medium. Leave the lengthier pieces for print.

There’s also this other issue with digital and social media. There’s a lot of copying/sharing/curating happening, and relatively little original content being created. I’m also aware of that, and I do my best to keep info-clutter to a minimum in my communications. I don’t want to share something just for the sake of doing it or to keep up with what others are writing about. It has to have deep meaning and purpose. Does that make sense? There is focused intention and design purpose behind what I write, share, discuss, etc. I try to suss out what’s useful, meaningful, and relevant. I always ask myself, “What am I saying? And, who cares? Does it matter?” If it doesn’t, I usually chuck it unless it’s a really important personal piece. But I’m always pondering that. What is the point of this? Why does it matter? It’s healthy to challenge your thinking that way.

Freshly gathered hips of Rosa rugosa

That can also work against me sometimes. Take plant monographs, for example. I *love* writing them, as complex a task as that is. But I don’t really do it for the blog because I think, there’s so many other stellar herbalists writing monographs that do it way better than I can. Why detract attention? Go read the posts of Kiva Rose, Rosalee de la Foret, Ananda Wilson, Rebecca McTrouble or Jim McDonald. So it’s something I get tripped up about. But I *so* want to write monographs. I just have to figure out my way and risk being redundant.

I’m a person that follows curiosity and challenges myself. As a result, I am nearly always in a learning phase these days. My learning definitely keeps deepening, and my voice as a developing community herbalist subsequently evolves.


Ann: Will you stay involved with this program? And what else are you working on now that you are done with your thesis?!

Renee: Most definitely. I am still working with the Native Plants Nutrition Program, putting together a digital story/slideshow about the center, with a collection of stories from patients and staff. Which is an adventure, given this is my first bout of editing audio and video.

Beyond that, I’ve been really focused on co-founding and launching the Dandelion Seed Community Health Organization in Olympia, WA. We started in 2008 as the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic, which has offered free herbal consultations in downtown Olympia as well as classes in the community. So far, we’ve served over 2,000 people in our community. So we’re becoming a nonprofit and broadening our education programs and services that connect people, plants & place for social and ecological health. We’ve got a conference in September called The Dandelion Seed Conference 2012: Herbal Medicine for Community and Social Healing. So we’re looking forward to that event to move this conversation forward in Olympia. But indeed, there’s a lot of work that goes into developing an organization like this. Keeps me out of trouble enough.

Aside from that, this whole project has energized me to go back to my own family’s roots and dig deeper into the medicine traditions of the people of Romania. I’ll be gathering my family’s stories about the plants and traveling back there for further research. My family fled Romania during the Ceacescu regime, and reconnecting with my ancestry and the medicine traditions of my ancestors is endlessly joyous for me.

I also want to do more writing. Lots and lots of writing…

Ann, thank you so much for having this discussion with me, and bringing these conversations forward with the Numen film and blog. We’re really building momentum. Place and community-based herbal practice has the capacity to revolutionize how we live. I say we creatively seize the opportunity!



  • Reply October 21, 2013

    Michaela Maestas

    thank u, peace Michaela
    Mother Bosque Gardens
    corrales , New Mexico 87048

Leave a Reply