An Interview with Atava Garcia Swiecicki of Ancestral Apothecary

An Interview with Atava Garcia Swiecicki of Ancestral Apothecary

Mar 2nd 2021

When you started Ancestral Apothecary, what were you hoping to provide? How has Ancestral Apothecary grown since then?

There are three branches of Ancestral Apothecary, which all evolved organically over time. I first started my business in Oakland in 1997 under a different name (The Goose Sisters Healing Center) as a place to offer my services as an herbalist and bodyworker and to offer a few classes in herbal medicine.

My herbal product line grew naturally out of my work as an herbalist. Actually my first product wasn’t made of plants, but of medicinal mushrooms. As I had learned more about the amazing healing powers of medicinal mushrooms, I realized that almost everyone could benefit from taking them, so I was inspired to create Mighty Mushrooms.

Each subsequent product I created was inspired by my love for the plants and each product has its own story. For example, I also love working with dreams and observing how plants can influence the dream state. After years of experimenting with myself and my students, I created Dream Drops, which is a blend of herbs, flower and gemstone essences that I found very helpful to enhance dreaming.

Ancestral Apothecary as a school also has been growing over time. When I first started teaching I was motivated to share my love of medicinal plants with my friends. I first started to offer a few classes now and then out of my house. Over time, my classes started to grow in length and also to attract more students.

I renamed my business Ancestral Apothecary in 2004 and began to offer more regular classes out of my Oakland office. One of the first regular classes I offered was Herbal Allies, which originally was called Herbs as Spiritual Allies.

My dream for Ancestral Apothecary as a school was to create a space where people from many different cultural backgrounds could share their ancestral medicines with one another. I envisioned a school where people would come together around their shared love for plants and their shared passion for healing their communities.

As a long time Oakland resident, I have been aware of the lack of herbal trainings that reflected the cultural diversity of the Bay Area. As a person of mixed race and cultural heritage (Polish, Mexican, Navajo and Hungarian), I wanted to find healing spaces that included more perspectives on healing than just white european/american.

In 2011 I began to offer the class called The Curandera’s Toolkit. I wanted to create a class that taught herbal medicine and healing but from a perspective of curanderismo. I drew upon my years of herbal training plus my years of mentorship with Mexican curanderas Doña Enriqueta Contreras and Estela Roman. To my surprise, this class really took off and continues to be one of the most popular classes that we offer.

I continued to teach short term classes until, around 2015, many of my students began to ask me to offer a longer term herbal training. These were primarily students of color who were interested in herbal medicine but wanted to go to a school were they and their ancestors felt included, represented and not tokenized. From these conversations Cecemmana was born, which is our nine month herbal training program.

In 2018 we graduated our first class of clinical herbalists from Cecemmana, the majority of whom are women of color. I am very happy to be supporting more diversity in the herbal community here in the Bay.

Which class offerings have been the most meaningful to you?

I love all of my classes. Each one has a different kind of medicine and attracts different kinds of students. Cecemmana is our longest and most comprehensive program. I really appreciate that this class has the time and space to go into depth with not only the plants but also with each person’s own individual healing.

In creating a multi-cultural herbal learning community, how have you found these diverse lineages working together?

When you have people of different racial and cultural backgrounds in a shared space that is dedicated to personal and collective healing, issues are going to come up. Creating a space that honors diversity is not easy and demands dedication and commitment. I have been blessed with both incredible teachers and students who are willing to show up and do the work which makes healing and community building possible.

As a mixed-race and white-presenting person I feel like the spaces I create are meant to include everyone, including people of European ancestry. I have done a lot of work reconnecting with my Polish indigenous medicine and I feel like it is important for white folks to realize that they aren’t just “white” but they also come from rich cultures and heritages.

Since racism has created both historical and current day trauma, I also think it is important for people of color to be the majority in our classes. This keeps a certain kind of balance and safety for our POC students.

At the same time, I am grateful that some of my graduate herbalists are now offering POC only herbal classes through Ancestral Apothecary. I think it is essential that folks of color have spaces to connect to the medicine and to heal without having to spend their energy deflecting racism or having to educate white folks.

In Cecemmana we have an assignment called the Ancestral Medicine project. For this project each student researches a medicine practice of their ancestors and presents it to the class. They may share about herbs, rituals or food of their ancestors. Or they may start by simply sharing the story of their family.

In this process I have witnessed both profound transformation and healing in the classroom. The alchemy of sharing ancestral stories and ancestral medicine is powerful in bringing people together from many different backgrounds. With the Ancestors present, a space is also created to heal both the past and current day wounds of colonization and racism. When each person is grounded in their ancestral medicine we create a powerful circle of healers where nobody needs to appropriate another’s cultural medicine ways.

Finally, the plants are also very helpful allies for building diverse community. We come together in the classroom over our shared love for plants. Our innate connection to plants is part of everyone’s genetic memory, regardless of race, gender, culture, sexual orientation or sexual identity. The plants exist in the matrix of Mother Earth, a space beyond all the limitations of humanity. They are true examples of unconditional love, and help us to be in our hearts, to speak our truth, to face our fears, and to heal.

In this way, working with plants is like having loving wise elders always present in the classroom. They play a big part in helping maintain a space that is both safe and healing for everyone.

Do you have a favorite herb at the moment? If so, which one and why?

Right now I am loving Tulsi, because it tastes delicious, gives me energy and helped me to wean off daily caffeine. I also have recently fallen in love with cannabis, especially high CBD strains because it helped me to sleep when all other herbs stopped working. I shunned cannabis for many years, feeling like it got too much attention. However, my own health issues like chronic insomnia brought cannabis into my life. As an herbalist I am excited to see how the legalization of cannabis will bring it back into our herbal apothecaries so that we herbalists may learn how to work with it in tandem with other herbs to create powerful medicine for our clients. 

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