This Indigenous Skincare Brand Blends Science and Squamish Traditions
Ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph launched Sḵwálwen Botanicals as a way to reconnect to ancestral land and traditions
This article was originally published in November 2019.
When Leigh Joseph was growing up, she’d pick vegetables from her great uncle’s garden near the Nanaimo River on Vancouver Island, help him hang salmon in his smokehouse, and drink the fresh blackberry juice her great aunt made.
These experiences instilled in Joseph, a member of the Squamish Nation, the importance of understanding her connection to the natural world. And it’s the natural world, and her Squamish culture, that inform her skincare brand Sḵwálwen (pronounced squall-win) Botanicals.
Joseph launched the business in late 2017. After getting a master’s degree of science from the University of Victoria, she began building her own relationship with wild plants, as she puts it, harvesting and processing them to use as ingredients in household salves, ointments and bath products for her two children.
She loved the creativity evoked by developing recipes, and started thinking about how she could start a small business in a respectful way, grounded in her culture. The result is Sḵwálwen, through which Joseph marries traditional Squamish plant knowledge with her academic background as an ethnobotanist—someone who studies the relationship between people and plants.
“Having my degree in biology and having the chance to have focused on some upper-level botany and plant biochemistry courses has helped me to understand more about the medicinal compounds in the plants or the compounds that can lend themselves well to topical skincare,” says Joseph, who lives in Squamish, B.C., and is working on her PhD.
The sap and resin produced by coniferous trees, for instance, aids the trees in protecting themselves from insects and infection. As a result, these two ingredients have powerful antibiotic and antimicrobial properties that can be used in skincare to heal minor burns or scrapes.
From Squamish elders, too, Joseph has learned about the historical use of plants as medicine. Stinging nettle, for one, has long been used by her ancestors as an anti-inflammatory, both ingested and applied topically. And antioxidant-rich rose petals soothe irritated skin.
With this knowledge, Joseph gathers plant ingredients from forests and meadows and creates recipes, producing such items as Kalkáy (pronounced call-kay, it means “wild rose bush” in Squamish) Face Masque, Tewín’xw (too-ay-nooh, meaning “berry”) Cranberry Rose Antioxidant Facial Serum, Pá7pawtn (pa-pow-tin, which means “plant that relieves sore muscles”) Nettle and Arnica Sore Muscle Salve, and Nékwentsut (neck-went-suit, meaning “warm oneself”) Rose, Nettle and Mint Tea.
She sells her products online across Canada and at local markets in British Columbia. The Kalkáy items—facial oil, toner, bath salts, body polish, mask, and healing salve—are most popular.
The word “sḵwálwen,” too, is Squamish. The closest English translation is “essence of being” or “spiritual heart.” It encompasses what Joseph is putting into the business and what she gets out of it. “That’s really an essential teaching in my culture—when you’re making anything, whether it be a food, or a medicine or, in this case, one of the product offerings in the skincare line… from the harvesting to the processing to the actual making of the recipe, that you ensure that your heart and mind are in a good place,” she says. “Because the belief is that what you hold inside you can be put into that food or that medicine or that recipe.”
Joseph launched the company with an English name, The Wild Botanicals, but rebranded in fall 2019. “A part of me recognized early on that this business is rooted in my personal experiences connected to cultural resurgence and healing, and for these reasons, it would be powerful to have a Squamish name for the business,” she wrote on her website when she announced the name change. “Our Squamish language has been impacted almost to the point of extinction.”
Based on the positive feedback Joseph has received from customers, she thinks they can feel the connection between her products and the cultural context of the way she harvests ingredients. It’s something she does respectfully, thanking the plants and trees, as well as sustainably, leaving enough of the plant to ensure regeneration.
“I’ve had people say they really feel that they’re caring for themselves and connected to this larger process of both Indigenous resurgence and reconnection of knowledge, but also the shared learning that happens for non-Indigenous people as well to be engaging with this brand and learning some of the Squamish language in the process,” she says.
Joseph believes there’s a common interest, among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, in how plants connect us to nature and to our health. That’s partly due, she thinks, to a growing awareness of what’s in the creams and cleansers we use on our skin, as well as the effects of skincare production and packaging on the environment.
“By drawing people together around that topic, I think, inherently when I teach or when I speak about this knowledge, it’s also within the context of knowing that we’re in a time of healing, because of the impacts of colonization specifically on land access, on the ways that we nourished ourselves through foods and medicines as Indigenous people,” she says—referring to the dispossession of First Nations’ land and the way First Nations people have been discouraged from practicing culture and traditions.
“As an Indigenous person my health and well-being is linked intrinsically to my ancestral lands,” she says. “The targeted separation of Indigenous people from the land has had long-reaching impacts on health and well-being, and I believe we are in a time when rebuilding those lived connections between the land and our health is vital.”
As part of her doctoral work, Joseph is teaching a series of workshops to Squamish Nation members about land-based harvesting and kitchen-based preparation. She helps participants identify and harvest plants, then prepare something using the ingredients, such as an immune-boosting drink, nutritional broth or body oil. And at home, she involves her children in this learning as well, taking them out into the woods and educating them about plants and their traditional uses.
There’s minimal representation of Indigenous people in the small business world, particularly in the skincare industry, Joseph says, so it’s important for non-Indigenous Canadians to see a First Nations woman reconnecting with her culture in this way—particularly at a time when reconciliation is a growing national priority.
“By putting this business and this voice out there, for me, it’s a way of reclaiming practices and reclaiming a space that’s so meaningful to me and helps me with my own healing.”