Growing up in Ireland, Cora Anderson's grandfather, Pete Rivers learned to work with herbs. When he came to Alabama in the nineteenth century, he sought out Cherokee healers and they exchanged information about the names and uses of plants.
I tell you this at the outset, because I want to say that there are times in history when people from Europe have met Indigenous people from North America on respectful terms and shared medicine. But, things were different then. Like my ancestors, Pete Rivers was an Indigenous person displaced from one continent to another. He met his Cherokee neighbors on a certain equal footing.
My own great grandfather was probably two generations younger. When he arrived in Lynn, MA, at the age of 21, a young Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, the Irish were not yet "white." He, and my grandfather, faced the Ku Klux Klan who were terrorizing Irish neighborhoods in Massachusetts. (Other ancestors of mine likely faced the same struggles when the Klan was going after Quebecois communities in Maine.)
But, three generations later, my body is read as "white" in thus culture, and I am an uninvited interloper on unceded WSANEC territory. While the term "settler" doesn't, in my mind, fit my great grandfather, I am, against my will, a beneficiary of colonization, and of a white supremacist capitalist culture that values my life, my voice, my existence more than it values the lives and voices and existence of Indigenous people or Black people or Brown people. And as much as I try to resist the violence of capitalism and white supremacy, I live within them. The "privilige" given to me is not something I can renounce or give away. So I do not enter into relationship with the people whose land I am living on with the same kind of equal footing that Pete Rivers held.
This doesn't make true exchange impossible, but it complicates it.
Adrienne Rich wrote that "poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history." The same is true of herbalism.
And in the case of relationships between the Indigenous people of this continent and the descendants of Europeans, that history is one where colonizers have again and again taken whatever they wanted and needed from Indigenous communities. And, now that capitalist colonialism has stolen almost every material thing from the original inhabitants of this land (and is doing its damnedest to take what's left), a lot of people who materially benefit from that theft are looking to Indigenous communities to feel their spiritual needs as well. Some are approaching respectfully, but most less so. And so Indigenous communities are rightly and understandably outraged when outsiders claim their medicines and their ceremonies as their own, especially when they profit from them without giving back to the people they took them from.
Its true, plants belong to themselves, not to cultures. I disagree with the claim I have heard (though it is a rare one, and I hear people denouncing it more than I hear anyone making it) that white herbalists have no right to work with Osha or Devil's Club. We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms. And, then, to learn what there is to know about traditional understandings of those plants that might give us better context for our own relationships with plants. Where I draw the line is at claiming to be practicing the traditions that knowledge comes from without understanding and sharing the full cultural context they emerge from. And at harvesting these plants in ways that disrespect and disrupt Indigenous people's ability to access the plants that helped to shape their cultures.
Its also true, that even in the presence of this history, real conversation and real exchange around plant medicine can happen between people form different communities. But most of the time I find that those conversations happen quietly. And the white people who engage in them don't tend to make bold, public claims about having a special knowledge of Indigenous medicine. They happen when one plant person recognizes another, and they get curious.
Just like Pete Rivers and the Cherokee healers he met when he came to Alabama.