Jun 022010

The beautiful logo my partner Wolf created for the Medicine Woman Herbal Clinic and for my line of herbal products, Medicine Woman Herbals.

I’ve recently opened an office, one day a week, at the new Frisco Wellness Center here in the local village of Reserve. I call my herbal and nutrition consulting The Medicine Woman Herbal Clinic, and share the space with Kristen Ehrlich, who is a massage therapist. While I’m already seeing folks there, we’re celebrating the opening with an open house and small gathering at the Wellness Center on June 12th (that’s 43 Main Street next to the daycare and community garden, if any of you locals happen to be reading this).

In the process of opening up this office, I’ve also been conducting a serious reevaluation of my own practice and work as an herbalist. I have always considered myself to be very hands-on, common sense and grounded in what works. I don’t have any letters after my name, no special certification or even any fancy memberships to prove my status as a professional herbalist. But as I’ve begun teaching and working with more and more people, and expanding my practice, I’ve noticed that I sometimes find myself wishing I could prove myself with more than just my reputation and the thanks of those I’ve treated or taught. After all, there is a certain allure to having people trust you based on your education or official status in the world. And of course, within the realm of mainstream medicine, or even mainstream alternative medicine, it is nearly a requirement you at least pretend to have some sort of certification, some document that assures your clients and students of your competence, if not your excellence. Now, I think there’s some real validity to this way of thinking if you intend to work within the medical system or desire the respect of other healthcare professionals. This sort of respect and acknowledgment from within the system creates a very specific kind of accessibility and allows the public to know that herbalists even exist in the world. Which in turn provides them with options for health and healing they didn’t previously have, something that is almost always a good thing.

The more I think on it though, the less I’m interested in any official status. I’m happy for those herbalists who work in a more widely accepted model of practice that allows them greater freedom of movement within our culture… but for myself, I intend to stay right here, at the grassroots. For me personally, this means continuing to work with people as an herbal practitioner, as a village herbalist, on a nearly daily basis. It means leaning over peoples’ backyard fences and teaching them how to work with the weeds that grow all around them. It means gathering wild plants for food and medicine for my family and friends. It means when I sit down with people to try and help them with whatever discomfort or problem they’re experiencing that my aim is to nourish and promote wholeness and vital health. It means I’m a weedy herbalist, subverting the dominant culture with chicken soup and wildflowers, and by reminding people that medicine comes from right here – from the earth we’re connected to and from inside our own bodies.

It doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop learning, or quit trying to understand the intricacies of human physiology or the magical complexity of botany. In fact, I think I might learn that much more with all the time I’ll save not filling out paperwork or proving I know what I’m doing to the proper authorities. For myself, authority as an herbalist comes from myself and from the community I serve. This is how I practice and this is how I teach my students. My people come to study with me initially looking to become a “certified herbalist” and while I do offer a certificate of completion at the end of some of my more demanding programs, those certificates are just that, a piece of paper informing you (and whoever you show it to) that you managed to finish the course of work set before you. It, like me, offers no entitlement or authority.

At my core, I’m a traditional herbalist, what people ’round these parts call a medicine woman, and what’s called an herbwife or grannywoman if you’re from Appalachia or the Ozarks. Nope, I sure haven’t finished college, but I sure do know what herbs to use on an assassin bug bite or if you’ve got a migraine. Like all of us, I’ll be working to understand how it all works until my very last breath. I’m excited for that journey, and to spend every day of the rest of my life learning how to better help the community I serve as an herbalist, a healer, a human being.


In case you missed yesterday’s post, be sure to check out the FREE teleseminar I’m doing with John Gallagher:
The Wild Remedy: Grassroots Herbalism from Our Backyards & Beyond

  18 Responses to “The Medicine Woman: Returning to Her Roots”

  1. Kiva,

    Your philosophy rings true with me. A document doesn’t tell anyone about your true competency; being good at taking tests and doing coursework doesn’t translate into having a good way with people and truly understanding and caring about your medium.

    (Besides, all those different letters some herbalists have after their names are just confusing!)


  2. I love this approach. I think mainstreaming earth-based medicine like western medicine would be a huge loss to the community. While i understand some have the need for legitimacy in terms of letters at the end of a name, regulation, certification, and red tape is one of the reasons it is so expensive, wasteful and inaccessible. I celebrate your choice so much in this matter. Thanks for staying true.

  3. Kiva, your post brings up so many things that I think about daily.
    Since I’m in Chinese medical school right now, and, well, quite honestly I hate every minute of it– from the crown-chakra-opening-crystal-toting-teachers (those things are LOUD, man… makes it hard to concentrate), to the teaching of these herbs in little plastic bags (I asked one of my herb teacher where this herb grows and he looked at me and said angrily “I’m not a botanist, I’m a herbalist”). It’s all SO far removed from what I want to do… which is to use plant allies to help people on their healing path. And yet I slug away. Because I want the freedom of having the letters after my name. It’s an interesting position to be in, especially when, a lot of the time, I feel like the subversive rebel in an already on-the-fringe field.

    I also think a lot about the legality issue of practicing without a license.

    Thank you for being so honest about this stuff… it’s great to read.

  4. There is some value in academia’s rote memorization, learning and repeating concepts, writing papers and developing research skills, but one can develop these on their own, and one can experience more freedom outside of academia to explore the world of herbs with a more personalized style, one that isn’t crimped by the robot-like cranking out of worker cogs in the wheels of industry. Furthermore, the dominance of chemically based synthesized food and drugs in our society and economy is hugely pushed in most academic environments (awesome herb schools excepted, of course!).

    Herbalists learn our skills in a variety of ways. Some take the path of academia. Some of us learn on our own, tuning into the subtle differences between symptom pictures and the personalities of our beloved plants. Some of us are trained by amazing herbalist mentors steeped in traditional knowledge and rich in years of personal observation of clients and critical thinking skills, yet most folks who are not in the herbalism world understand little or nothing about the value in that. Some of my most treasured skills as an herbalist involve things I learned from listening to my teachers talk about the way they think, the way they approach a client’s complexity of symptoms and lifestyles such as diet, excercise, and stress. The ability to synthesize this information and the careful use of intuitive skills is rarely taught in academic environments, and is learned by practicing the healing arts. Practice, practice, practice. And it helps to be passionate about healing and passionate about plants!

    Blessings on your herbal path, Kiva! And blessings to all the medicine men and medicine women.

  5. Even with the letters of physical therapist behind my name, it does not mean anything in terms of the real meat of caring about people and giving through experience and heart. Your philosophy is what I aspire to as a human being, a body healer and fledgling grassroots herbalist. Thanks Kiva for your inspiration.

  6. You have put to words all my feelings and emotions and validated my beliefs of what Herbalism is to me. Thank you so much Kiva!

  7. And here I am, in midlife, just beginning to learn all this! And have worked in the mainstream lo these many years….. I envy you your experience & knowledge…..

  8. Congratulations on opening your office in Reserve!! And, I’m so glad that you are a grassroots herbalist, a “medicine woman”…in my eyes, that makes you more than qualified to do the expert herbal work that you do. I will look forward to reading more about your experiences and adventures Kiva, much love to you and yours!

  9. My heart sang loudly when I read your post! I have struggled with the desire to stay a grassroots herbalist vs the thought that I should have a title bestowed on me by someone who decided that I did enough coursework to get a piece of paper. I learn way more from the plants than I do pieces of paper! Keep up the good work and I will see you in September!

  10. I’m so pleased with your decision, Kiva. At first, in this piece when you mentioned getting those letters after your name, I thought, “Oh no, not another one falling in line.” Then, of course, you explained why you’re not going that route and I breathed a sigh of relief. I remember when you first arrived at the Sanctuary, having known Wolf from his EF! activist, troubador days to when he settled in, then Loba arrived with her love, grace, and wisdom, then you and your beautiful little girl Rhiannon. I watched (as much as I can from my home in Maine, thanks to the technology of my computer) as you became part of the land there, and your relationship with the plant kingdom expanded and intensified and then it was obvious you hear the plants, they speak directly to you and one of your gifts is that you listened and trusted – not only them but yourself. It was (and is) a beautiful thing. You are a wonderful, beautiful example of what is possible with relationship to Earth when you commit to a place, put the time and work into it, and follow your heart.

    What you do is art, and it’s a real gift! I understand a bit because of my own relationship with nature, that started with conversations with trees and expanded. I understand the reality of where your knowledge and information come from because I’ve felt it myself. But when people don’t have that kind of connection – when it stays in their heads, or when they discount what they “know” in favor of what the book says or what someone else has taught them, they don’t get it and they then tend to favor the letters after the name. You are an example of what is possible, and truely what you do is what is needed in this world. If we are to survive as a species on an ever-changing (and unfortunately increasingly depleted) Earth, we will need community herbalists more than ever. We will need people who can listen directly to the plants. It is my belief that knowing what plants have been traditionally used for is useful, and that over time this is going to change as the environment changes, as plants move about as they are doing thanks to climate change, as the needs of people change. The Earth, being alive and wise and participatory in nature, changes just as we do. How will we know how the plant kingdom is changing, how their medicine is changing, without people like you who listen and translate? Thank you, Kiva.

  11. So great Kiva. Your community is lucky to have you more accessible to them! I really like what you write about here. I am in midlife now. I have a nursing degree but, never really used it in a traditional setting. I started off wanting to practice lay midwifery after having had a homebirth…and went off to massage school and have been traveling the regenerative path ever since. My main focus was on my family, holistic regenerative health and lifestyle. I never fit into the mainstream of healthcare and have walked on the outside all my life. Degree’s are fine if one needs to fit in somewhere and it’s required to practice…though even this is debatable in my mind. I have met many folks that have a degree…in healthcare…and they have been very uncaring and unaware of a healing and healthful relationship. It’s not their fault. It’s the lack of exposure to a different way of being. The old traditional ways are what speak to me most strongly. It’s what I always come back to…in my parenting (my daughter is now 22), unschooling, activisim, plant journeying….traditional plant/nature love is what seems to be what I am most connected to. So…long ago…30 years ago now I was headed to a homesteading program in NC….life changed and well-meaning folks stepped in and encouraged me to go to Nursing School to have a “job” that I could fall back on. I won’t say it was a mistake…how can we ever know what should or should not have been? I will say that it is so important to listen to that inner knowing voice…I went through the entire program and never practiced in a setting where I needed a degree. I knew it all through the program…it just was not me. There are plenty of folks that want to follow these ways. We need those of us in this world that are brave enough to walk on the edge of this misguided culture of ours.

  12. Hurrah! Congratulations on opening your office, and congratulations for continuing on your path as a grassroots herbalist. I too have struggled with the “initials-after-my-name” thing. At one point I realized that all the learning I was doing (and loved to do) really was a legitimate path. What I needed most was to realize the value of it myself. So I charted all my learning out as an “academic path”, and dreamed up for myself an architecture called the Forest Halls Folk College (devoted to organic higher learning), and crafted my own PhD program (of sorts). I don’t add initials after my name (having completed that program for myself, though I continue to learn, learn, learn–it will never end πŸ™‚ ), but it sure was fun to change this pressure (from the mainstream culture, and my own anxiety to offer what I do as having legitimate value), and shape-shift it into something of my own creation, making total sense to me. In the end, I think many of us are crafting ourselves in ways that degrees and programs can’t take us. Following our authentic path means just that — weaving our pursuit of knowledge, skills, experiences into a rare flower that serves others meaningfully, responsibly, effectively. How we weave those threads together ultimately resides on what will truly serve us best to serve others …. For me, Kiva, your knowledge, wisdom, continued love of learning and deepening with what you do is apparent. I don’t need you to have credentials to prove to me that you are a wise healer indeed!

  13. What amazing news Kiva, you just continue blossoming like the area you live in hehe! I know what you mean about struggling with titles – not so much for your own sake because you KNOW what you know, but communicating it in a way that others in our society are conditioned to have it delivered to them. I am also happy you are taking a stand, and allowing people who need your services to evaluate you on what you REALLY can do for them, rather than randomly giving them alphabet soup that doesn’t really even mean anything to them, but sounds impressive (I guess)! πŸ™‚ While I had attended the School of Natural Healing for the MH, it is only a diploma, not a certification or licensing in herbal medicine, and to my knowledge, no such thing exists in the USA anyway (unless you go the ND route, and that is not necessarily vitalistic approaches). I also hope herbalism does not become further regulated in the USA, it is already bad enough the things we can’t do! In any case, I like having the MH because it CAN show people what I had been trained in – however, like you, I am constantly learning from many different sources, some of which have different viewpoints of application, and have moved in some ways BEYOND my MH, the way I see it, and don’t feel desire to pursue the titles either. I didn’t do it as an astrologer either, and I had plenty of folks find out exactly how I could help them! πŸ™‚ GO KIVA!! You are one gifted healer and medicine woman, and if it helps – tell prospective clients you even at times teach others in your profession (like “continuing education” or something hehe) πŸ˜‰

  14. Great post Kiva. Right on.

  15. Awesome article. This came to my attention at the perfect time. I love how things work out that way! I have been studying herbalism for almost 10 years now, and no letters behind my name. I attended Wild Rose College of Natural Healing out in Alberta, Canada here for a year and then have grabbed courses here and there. Terry Willard runs a great school by the way!
    I have struggled with the letters behind the name thing for awhile. I would love to be certified because in some way, unfortunately, it makes more people feel comfortable with you. But at the same time, I feel you never ever stop learning when it comes to herbalism, whether it is about the plants or people. I think certain people are drawn to you at certain times when their path is meant to cross yours (case in point), and you can provide the education in healing that they need at that time. I think we, as natural-born herbalists (at least I feel I am), sometimes struggle with the self-confidence that we are good at what we do, even though we do not bear letters behind our names. At least, that is how I feel sometimes, and I have to remind myself to stop it! I sometimes forget that what is so second-nature to me, is not second-nature to the majority of people, and I need to remember to value myself and what I know and learn, and honor the process of this journey as a herbalist.
    Knowing you have a clinic and are helping people, even without the letters, gives me the confidence to do it as well! Thank you and I wish you many blessings moving forward.

  16. I don’t even know what most of those letters of certification stand for—but I do know what a Medicine Woman is. Personally, I find healing all throughout your website via the blessing of your magic—not the proof of your certification. I suspect others do, too. I hope you’ll remain an “unlettered” Medicine Woman forever!

  17. Kiva,
    This thread is archived, but just read it tonight. I’ve observed the herb world and the world’s herbs for nearly 40 years. Like you, I am without papers. You’ve become who you are by following your passion, because you have no choice. You know what you know and don’t know what you don’t know. Simple as that. My observation is that you have an incredible depth of knowledge from living it day in and day out, because that’s who you are. You don’t have to work to attain papers. You know that you will learn something new everyday, forever. You are the village herbalist, respected for your knowledge, skills, information, depth, and on and on it goes.You are an herbalist, part of the earth, the ecosystem of history, because as there are humans, plants and earth, there have always been and there will always be herbalists. You are an herbalist in the same way that a tree grows.

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