Special Issue

Regrounding Practice, Unsettling Knowledge

Plant medicine in settler colonial contexts

by Charis Boke

Guest editor Dr. Charis Boke is a medical and environmental anthropologist whose work dwells first in activist commitments to justice, repair, and visions of a better world.

What does it mean to do herbalism in the ongoing context of settler colonialism, in particular on Turtle Island?1 Though this continent is not the only one under settlement and colonization, it is from this particular settler context our authors draw their discussions for this series. We offer you an invitation, reader, to listen more deeply to forms of expertise and knowledge other than those generated through the academy. It is an invitation to unsettle what Mark Rifkin calls "settler common sense" (Rifkin 2014) modes of engaging with the land, with plants, with belonging, and with knowledge.

Contributors have strived to offer specific ethnographic and historical accounts of contemporary North American practices with plants as both food and medicine. Practitioner-scholars, activists, and aligned communities examine how understandings of what a plant is, and what kinds of capacities plants can hold, are translated and transmuted back and forth across domains of knowledge, and what the consequences of such translations may be. These contributions engage with a wide array of knowledges and practices in order to examine what kinds of lessons for thriving in difficult ecological circumstances—and, perhaps, for "unsettling" those circumstances—can emerge from working with plants.

Sharing from their respective social locations, grounded in their own expertise, and working across fields of practice, contributors unearth the conversations that need to continue (cf. brown 2015). Collectively, we name and recognize the ongoingness of colonialism, particularly how colonial and settler-colonial power politics have created the possibility for the presence of different herbalisms and foodways on this continent. For instance, Dr. Claudia Ford offers us a dive into the relationship between cultural identity, environmental stewardship, and systems of racism, by way of a carefully rendered description of her mother and grandmothers' practices with plants. Kate Farley's article on using and studying kudzu in the southeast dwells on the language used to describe plants, considering how the use of terms like "native" and "invasive" reaffirm settler forms of knowledge, including and not limited to xenophobia. And Jason Hirsch highlights the generational shift occurring in white, settler herbalist communities, marked in part by a simultaneous identification of self with nature and a conscious effort to reckon with the violences of colonial knowledge theft.

The very plant medicines herbalists use are involved in the historical and ongoing processes of settlement and systems of racialized power.2 Some species of plants traveled to the Americas with colonists. A plant commonly known in American English as "broad-leafed plantain" is known in Anishinaabemowin as "white man's footstep," according to Anishinabe botanist and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Its Latin classification is Plantago major, where "plantago" refers to the foot. It is said to be among the first plants to travel with colonizers, but the link between colonization and the plant runs deeper than the name: it thrived around white settlements where soil was compacted and disturbed, and its use as a medicine stretches back in colonist lore. Plants like plantain are transplants on this landscape, like settlers—but in the early 21st century, both appear, at least to the settler eye, to belong to the environment.

Anthropologists like myself study the deep historical and social contexts in which people turn to plant medicines. Anthropologists join ethnobotanists, and practitioners of plant medicine, some of whose work is featured here, to examine these contexts in this Special Issue of The Ethnobotanical Assembly. This means some contributors share analysis based on long-term ethnographic, historical, and quantitative research, while others reflect on the ways their own practices as herbalist-scholars have been shaped by those histories. In this issue, for instance, Dr. Kristine Lawson writes about the relationship between the "protocols" of her work with members of the Musqueam Indian Band and the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, and the "protocols" for relating with yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.). In both cases, the practices of care-ful relationship itself is central to what it means to do good work together. Fareeha Siddique's article on Coast Salish First Nations' relationship with blue camas lily (Camassia qumash) reveals the ways that bodies, plants, landscapes, and long-drawn out histories of political violence are intimately entwined. Contributors speak from their positions as practitioners, researchers, plant lovers, and activists in order to grapple with these contexts.

What is settler colonialism?

Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe argues that settler-colonialism is "a structure, not an event" (2000), and is therefore processual, ongoing, and ever in-formation through the legal frameworks of the settler-colony and practices of land occupation. In the Global North, and in settler-colonial spaces in particular, herbalist forms and knowledge are pointedly shaped by this ongoingness of colonization (Coulthard 2014; Wolfe 2000; see also Vizenor et al 2008). Indigenous and local knowledges about plant medicines have historically been erased and re-transcribed as what is now called "science" through colonization's global power dynamics (Hayden 2003; Schiebinger 2004; Hsu and Harris 2010). Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2014) use the term "unsettling" to describe the affective and physical work that is necessary to address ongoing settler-colonial violences. We may productively use their frame to consider what it might mean to "unsettle" understandings of social and ecological wellness (Tuck and Yang 2014).

Settlerhood as a contemporary practice, as well as a set of historical processes, involves active erasure of Native presence to make space for settlers. Whiteness as an orientation enables the racialization and othering of Native, First Nations, Black, and other people of color. Together, these systems of power shape how plants move, how knowledge about them circulates, under what narratives, and to whose benefit.

As an ethnographer, I work with primarily White herbalists. I come to this work as a White person, descended of European settler-colonists and raised in the Northeast of the United States. Current-day Vermont's settler communities (where my herbalist interlocutors work) were marked by erasures of Native presence even more severe than those Jean O'Brien (2010) describes in her archival work on documentary erasure of Native communities in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. As she argues, for New England to become the kind of physical and imaginative landscape it did—available for non-native occupation, cultivation, change, and home-making—those early colonial practices of erasure were required. Engaging with these conversations in my own field-site led me to the pressing need for scholars, practitioners, and users of plants to deepen our understanding of the impact of settler colonialism on our practices and knowledges.

Settler-colonialism's structure enables non-natives to be in the world and occupy space through legal and quotidian means, such that occupying as practice disappears. Settler occupation is continuously experienced as invasion by many Native people and communities, while conversely, settlers experienced occupation as quotidian life. In Mark Rifkin's terms, this is "settler common sense" (2014): the taken-for-granted ways that non-natives rely on the erasure or effacement of Native presence in order to have room for themselves and how they understand themselves to be able to occupy space, use land, have rights, and establish communications.3

This does not mean that descendants of settlers actively choose to occupy as a way of being, but intentionally or not, descendants are always in the process of settling occupied land, and they benefit from settler-colonial common sense space-taking and the affect it produces. Even resistances against the state or the status quo (e.g. in the writings and life of Henry David Thoreau, as in Rifkin's example) are conditioned by presence in the settler-colony.

# Theory Box

To establish the general ability to imagine landscapes without peoples or human relations and maintain the “purity” of their own relation to place, settlers erased Native communities from the formal and informal ledgers of New England—a home territory called ndakinna in Wabanaki languages (O’Brien 2010). This was achieved through demographic and statistical means like “blood quantum” measurements, as much as through narratives of difference and savagery (Deloria 1998). Indeed, as Deloria points out, “Indianness is at the heart of Americanness,” especially the “savage” figure of the Indian (Deloria 1998), which set off a particular kind of white/colonial American identity in the early days of the colony. Together, these efforts were a form of genocide (Wolfe 2006) necessary for New England’s landscapes to emerge as occupiable by settler communities.

Why does settler colonialism matter for plant medicine?

Even contemporary settler herbalists' practices are enabled by settlement as a mode of being in the world. These modes shape how settlers and their descendants continue to occupy land, space, and political power in North America. They also shape how relations to land, ideas about space, and conceptions of political power emerge.

Plant medicine practitioners of settler background in any colonized space experience their belonging in particular landscapes, and their access to plants, as a form of "settler common sense." Many of my interlocutors are also keenly aware of the histories that allow them to do this, and struggle to reconcile histories of extraction and genocide with life-giving practices of herbalism today. When they rent a building, plant a garden, wildcraft on a friend's property, and purchase medicinal plant parts from Internet-based mail order companies which source their products globally, settler herbalists are engaged in part in ongoing colonization, alongside their work to address illness and injury in humans, and ecological repair in plant communities.

There is a felt sense that comes along with wildcrafting and gardening on stolen land, that manifests distinctly for people across different social locations. This felt sense is an affect, in the sense that it is "pre-cognitive, but not pre-social" (Massumi 2001). Black herbalists, for instance, trace the lineages of some of their medicinal knowledge to West African practices. European kidnappings from West Africa, and subsequent enslavement of millions of individuals who carried multiple kinds of expertise with them, created the settlement conditions under which contemporary Black and African-American herbalists practice. Settlement by force and violence is manifestly different than settlement by choice, however otherwise constrained those choices were for White and European-American settlers, and creates different affective conditions relating to gardening, wildcrafting, urban herbal practice, and client engagement. Needless to say, contemporary Native and First Nations herbalists across the continent have yet another set of political and felt relations to the fact of practicing herbalism in colonized spaces.

# Theory

Studies of human-environment relations, and the recounting of their histories in the northeastern United States, bring a critical perspective on how Indigenous presence and practice formed, and then were erased by, settler-colonial presence and practice (see O’Brien 2010; Cronon 1983; Mitman 2007). Medical and environmental anthropological approaches to studying alternative medicine and the resource economy of medicinal plants and their ecologies center issues of Indigenous and localized rights to knowledge and botanical substances, dwelling on questions of ownership and recognition as well as matters of the blurred boundary between “folk knowledge” and “science” (Hayden 2003; Mueggler 2011; Besky and Padwe 2016; Archambault 2016; Myers 2015, 2016). These are just a few starting places from which we might approach this conversation.

Practices of hope and repair

Many people who practice with plant medicine are well aware of the ways knowledge about plants has been shaped by histories of violent exploitation. Even as they grapple with ongoing decimation of Native communities and knowledges, practitioners of plant medicine share hope and possibilities for a reconciliation between humans and the planet, and between humans and other humans. This hope, as active practice, includes new forms of "response-ability" to plants, environments, and bodies (cf. Barad 2007, 2009; Haraway 2016). But there are implications for its practice on stolen, occupied land.

How do we grapple, as scholars and practitioners with plants, with large questions about histories of power surrounding plant knowledges? This series approaches these questions both through decolonial theorists' analyses, as well as through scholar-practitioners' calls to pay closer attention to relationship. Native Studies literatures highlight the importance of recognizing knowledge sovereignty — that is, that Indigenous knowledges are not simply resources for settler extraction (see Geniusz 2009; TallBear 2013). And Native and First Nations herbalists, alongside Black and global indigenous plant medicine practitioners, continue to highlight the ways that white communities benefit from, and extract knowledge from, Native and Black practices. One such practitioner-scholar, Stephanie Morningstar of SkyWorld Apothecaries, draws Native and First Nations sovereignty into ongoing conversation with the liberation of Black people and people of color on this continent. Her practice at SkyWorld Apothecaries, as well as her directorship at the Northeast Farmers of Color, are two of the venues in which she creates space for these conversations. Morningstar is not alone in this work — Linda Black Elk (a)(b), Dr. Jody Noe, Ayo Ngozi, Sade Musa, Naomi Doe Moody, and Amber Arnold are among the many other Native, First Nations, and Black scholar-practitioners who write, think, and talk about this tension betweenongoing settlement and ongoing commitments to repair. This series is informed by these and other scholar-practitioners, as they push all of us to grapple with ongoing violence and the need for repair of relations surrounding plant knowledges. It is our hope that more contributions will be added to the series over time.


Ahmed, S. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Archambault, J. S. 2016. Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique: Toward an Anthropology of Affective Encounters. Cultural Anthropology, 31(2), pp.244-271. Barad, K. 2009. Intra-Action: An Interview with Karen Barad by Adam Kleinman. Mousse, 34 [online]. Belcourt, B. 2017. On 'Moving Too Fast,' or Decolonial Speed [online] Besky, S. and Padwe, J. 2016. Placing Plants in Territory. Environment and Society: Advances in Research, 7, pp.9-28. Brown, A. M. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Berkeley, CA: AK Press. Coulthard, G. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Deloria, P. 1998. Playing Indian. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Deloria, V. 1994. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. London: Fulcrum Press. Fett, S. 2002. Working Cures: Healing, Health and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Geniusz, W. 2009. Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. Geniusz, M. S. 2015. Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Hayden, C. 2003. When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Hsu, E. and Harris, S. 2010. Plants, Health, and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn. Hustak, K. and Myers, N. 2012. Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters. differences, 23(3), pp.74-118. Kauanui, J. K. and Wolfe, P. 2012. Settler Colonialism Then and Now: A Conversation between J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and Patrick Wolfe. Politica and Societa, 2, pp.235-258. Kimmerer, R. W. 2015. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Press. Massumi, B. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Mueggler, E. 2011. The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Myers, N. 2014. Sensing Botanical Sensoria: A Kriya for Cultivating Your Inner Plant. Centre for Imaginative Ethnography [online] O'Brien, J. 2010. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Reardon, J. and TallBear, K. 2012 "Your DNA Is Our History": Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property. Current Anthropology, 53(S5), pp.233-245. Rifkin, M. 2014. Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Schiebinger, L. 2004. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sharpe, C. E. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Smith, A. 2017. Re-Membering Norridgewock Stories and Politics of a Place Multiple. Doctoral dissertation. Ithaca: Cornell University. Smith, L. T. 2012 [1999]. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books. Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. 2014. Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization, 1(1), pp.1-40. Vizenor, G. et al. 2008 Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Wolfe, P. 2000. Logics of Elimination: Colonial Policies on Indigenous Peoples in Australia and the United States. Lincoln, NE: International Human Rights and Human Diversity Initiative, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


  1. Turtle Island is an Indigenous name for what European settlers called North America. Naming it as such partially decenters European ways of knowing place.

  2. See, for example, Kauanui and Wolfe 2012; Wolfe 2000; Coulthard 2014; Deloria 1994; Deloria 1998.

  3. In the same way, the continuous presencing work of Native, First Nations, and Indigenous peoples has been called “survivance,” a term which may also be applied to other marginalized communities—Black communities, for instance, in the aftermath of slavery’s long reach (Vizenor et al. 2008). Other scholars have referred to this as the “ongoingness” of community life-ways and knowledge Belcourt 2015; Ahmed 2006; Smith 2012; Tuck and Yang 2014; Haraway 2013).