Leigh Joseph (Styawat) - Ethnobotanist & Entrepreneur Extraordinaire
By Holliston Logan
Recently, Matriarch Movement's podcast host and founder Shayla Oulette Stonechild had the chance to sit down with Leigh Joseph to learn more about her story and work. In addition to this conversation, we spent some time learning more about Leigh and believe us when we say, she is accomplished - one blog post does not do her story justice. Leigh is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) woman, mother, ethnobotanist, teacher, PhD candidate, and the founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals. As you listen to and read these portions of her story, we hope you leave inspired to connect with the land and the plants, and find the calmness, peace, and healing these relationships have to offer.
Leigh Joseph, whose ancestral name is Styawat, is from Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation. Leigh, who was raised in Victoria on Vancouver Island, has been building relationships with, and cultivating her knowledge of, plants from a young age. In an interview with Booooooom, Leigh states "I was a shy kid, quiet and imaginative. I loved playing outside in the front garden for hours, building homes for fairies under the garden flowers and feeling the sun on my back. The smell of fresh cedar defines my younger years. My father is a Salish carver and he worked from home when I was little. The crunch of fresh cedar shavings underfoot and the beautiful scent that came with that was a daily part of my childhood."
Listening to Leigh speak about her work, it is evident that her passion for plant foods and medicine is rooted in community, culture, and reciprocity. Leigh is the founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals, an Indigenous business that creates botanical skin care products that honour and incorporate Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) plant knowledge. Bringing together her knowledge as an ethnobotanist and her teachings from her community and ancestors, Leigh has built a business grounded in respect. Respect for both the land and ancestral knowledge can be witnessed in Sḵwálwen's business in many ways, from the sustainable harvesting of plant ingredients to the utilization of Squamish names in their products to honour the place the plant knowledge comes from.
As we spoke with Leigh one question we had was "what exactly is ethnobotany?" As quoted on her website: "Ethnobotany is the study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. The field of Ethnobotany combines biology and traditional ecological knowledge; as well, it examines approaches to creating healthy ways of life and connections to the land." Ethnobotany is not only part of Leigh's business, but it is also her academic work.
In addition to running her own business, Leigh also works as a researcher and community activist, and is a teacher and current PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria. We admire Leigh's journey through academia, and her advocacy in creating (long overdue) space for Indigenous knowledge and voices in academic institutions. She leads by example and a major focus of her work includes being on the land and learning hands-on in a cultural setting. In our interview with Leigh she encouraged folks, particularly those in the science field, to take the time to see and hear Indigenous voices and perspectives both in the field and in the literature, recommending researchers "read outside of [their] field and [she] would suggest turning to Indigenous studies." (Matriarch Movement podcast, June 15, 2021)
Connecting with plants has been a powerful tool of connection with culture, community, and healing for Leigh - an experience many of us can relate to. As a mother of two, Leigh recognizes that her relationship with plants is a tool she can utilize to share connection to land and traditional Squamish knowledge with her children. Join us as we chat with Leigh and listen to a bit more of her story, her work, who and what inspires her, and her relationship with plants.