Arianna Johnny-Wadsworth, founder of the Native-owned business Quw’utsun’ Made (also pronounced as “Cowichan”), was taught at a young age to engage in traditional practices. With these precious teachings, she formed her identity as a Quw’utsun’ medicine woman. Born in British Columbia on unceded Coast Salish territory (inalienable tribal lands), Johnny-Wadsworth learned essential herb-gathering techniques from her grandmother and local matriarchs, which later proved critical to her success in starting her business. She now uses traditional plant medicines local to Coast Salish territory, such as devil’s club and nettles, to heal the community.
At the start, Johnny-Wadsworth successfully merged her western education with her ancestral teachings to create recipes for Quw’utsun’ Made. “I incorporate my tribe’s values into my work by simply living off the land,” she said. “I teach…my customers and students that all life is sacred and how important it is to never exploit that.”
For Quw’utsun’ Made, Johnny-Wadsworth blends traditional herb extracts and essential oils to create eco-friendly moisturizers, salves, soy candles, soap, bath salts, and even linen sprays. Her perfume line is inspired by oral tradition that directly speaks to an indigenous person’s soul, like “The Beader,” “The Carver,” and “The Weaver.”
As an herbalist, Johnny-Wadsworth incorporates her tribal values into her business by praying over the herbs while gathering them. Prayer, as an indication of respect for partaking of nature, is paramount to her strong cultural integrity. “I knew it was important to share the gifts I had cultivated in my childhood,” she said. “As a medicine woman it was my way of reclaiming my power and keeping my traditions alive.” [Johnny-Wadsworth] respectfully advises others to gather wild herbs in a sustainable and judicious manner: “I impress the importance of taking only what you need and never over-harvesting.”
Johnny-Wadsworth’s mission to keep Quw’utsun’ traditions alive was also initiated by her tribe’s history of colonization. Quw’utsun’ tribal lands once extended beyond the current borders. The Canadian colonies and governments outlawed all tribal rights through the Indian Act of 1876, actively eliminating the tribe’s government structures, land ownership, cultural traditions, and practices. The tribe’s traditional territory was downsized to the designated reserves known today.
“So much of our land has been harmed for industries that don’t think of the bigger picture,” Johnny-Wadsworth said. “I pray that those who need the medicines harvest with good intentions and strong prayers.” In order to keep in line with these environmental values, Johnny-Wadsworth ethically sources the packaging for her product line and shares her medicines with those who need it the most. “Quw’utsun’ Made engages with the reality of being First Nations in a colonial society. I take every chance…to remind people to simply ‘Be a good ancestor.’”
“So much of our land has been harmed for industries that don’t think of the bigger picture,” Johnny-Wadsworth said. “I pray that those who need the medicines harvest with good intentions and strong prayers.”
Johnny-Wadsworth also spoke of a few business struggles as a Native entrepreneur, citing others’ concerns about her holistic wellness credentials and the perceived value of her work. “Many [challenges] include navigating the non-Native world. I’ve been asked to provide ‘professionally recognized’ credentials for my ancestral knowledge. I’ve also been asked to work for free.” She stresses that Coast Salish people kindly and traditionally pay all ceremony witnesses and knowledge keepers in regard to best practices. It is worth noting that many people have lost hope and trust in ancestral herb knowledge, especially in the wake of scandals and skepticism surrounding holistic wellness.
In addition to the online store, Quw’utsun’ Made appears at powwows and flea markets in addition to committing to wholesale buyers. Johnny-Wadsworth also blogs about upcoming herb workshops, her travels, and the powwow trail. A few long-term goals she has for Quw’utsun’ Made include a YouTube channel, opening a store on traditional Coast Salish territory, and employing her sisters who are skilled in fashion and fine art.
Johnny-Wadsworth uses teachable moments to help others reclaim their identity and knowledge. “Spend more time with Elders and…on the land. I always encourage my relatives to connect with our Creator. It’s important to remember where we came from.”
To all future knowledge keepers, she offers this advice: “I strongly encourage our youth and relatives to step outside their comfort zone and share the gifts Creator has given them. I encourage our people to walk in a good way with a good heart and good mind. We need to share our knowledge and medicines more than ever. Raising our young ones with the old ways will keep us strong and help us fight the colonial systems that suppress us.”
Christy Hanson is an experienced writer and instructor with a demonstrated history of working in freelance and education.