Cultural roots: The ethics of Indigenous plant knowledge and pharmacology

Dr. Eduardo Jovel has spent years of his academic career in labs researching the chemical composition of Indigenous plant medicine — work which stems from his Pipil-Mayan heritage.

But, Jovel came to realize that something was missing.

“... By doing [lab work] I will gain this understanding from a Western perspective: biological activity, chemical structures and properties of particular bioactive molecules,” he said.

While that information is useful, there are nuances the microscope can’t catch. Without considering the history, traditional methods and context of plant medicines, our knowledge of them isn’t just incomplete — it can be colonial.

“It is a different way of understanding the effect of these medicines, but in my opinion,” Jovel said, “it leaves behind the knowledge of Indigenous people.”

For Indigenous communities, the uses of traditional plant medicine often stretch far beyond physical effects against illness. In contrast, Western medicine has traditionally focused on an empirical approach to health care.

Health practices between Indigenous cultures and communities are very diverse. Still, Aboriginal approaches to health are often rooted in a holistic conception of well-being involving a balance of four elements of wellness: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual..

This cultural nuance is often absent from academic conversations on plant medicines, which tend to ignore plants’ cultural significance in favour of analyzing their chemical utility. According to UBC educators and Indigenous experts, using Indigenous plant medicine ethically demands Indigenous-centered dialogue — and holding pharmaceutical institutions accountable to where their knowledge comes from.

Sowing knowledge

Settler colonialism destroys the knowledge and biodiverse ecosystems that once supported abundant plant medicines, causing immense generational burdens for Indigenous communities.

“Everything has been stripped — the land, culture, medical systems,” said Jovel, who is also Director of the Indigenous Research Partnerships and xwc̓ic̓əsəm Garden at UBC. He is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems specializing in Indigenous plant medicine and knowledge and Natural Products Chemistry.

Given this generational loss, inherited practices like plant knowledge play a role in “defining cultural identity,” according to Jovel. There is also an intimate connection to cultural resilience, as plant knowledge involves an understanding of the local natural environment and Indigenous languages. The act of using traditional plants is also an exercise in translating generational knowledge of dosages and preparation protocols.

According to Jovel, some Indigenous peoples like the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee have historically shared knowledge with settlers willingly. However, settlers have often used Indigenous plants as medicine without respect or acknowledgement.

Without considering traditional protocols for harvest and reciprocity, this can result in overharvesting, which deprives Indigenous communities of their own medicines on their own land for settler benefit. Settlers also use Indigenous plants to produce commodifiable or patentable materials, which has been termed “biopiracy.” Considering how profitable pharmaceuticals can be, this amounts to a major theft of compensation.

Jovel said that the medicines he makes using Indigenous plants are not sold but shared as gifts

UBC alum and Vancouver Island Professor of Indigenous/Xwulmuxw Studies Dr. Georgina Martin, who is Secwepemc and a member of Williams’ Lake First Nation, addressed how many Indigenous communities are often wary of sharing medical information.

“Because of the history of colonization, a lot of people don’t want to disclose any of their knowledge for fear of appropriation. That’s very real,” said Martin. Martin pointed to the overlooked Indigenous roots of ubiquitous pharmaceutical painkillers like aspirin.

Indigenous knowledge stewardship also has policy implications.

“There is legal responsibility also. Ethics is not enough by itself,” said Jovel.

The protection of Indigenous cultural identity, including plants, falls under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution as well as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Convention for Biological Diversity, which Canada is party to, also affirms that Indigenous sovereignty over land and knowledge is a crucial component of conserving biodiversity.

“Communities take ownership of their own knowledge” said Martin.

Decolonizing psychedelics

According to Jovel, colonial use of culturally-relevant plants is especially problematic for sacred plants, which hold deep spiritual significance. These can include entheogens that alter consciousness. Specific Indigenous communities, including the Maya and Mazatec of Mexico and Latin America, use them in ceremonies.

In settler North America, psychedelics have been leveraged to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorder patients. Canadian research interest in psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, is growing.

For Jovel, ethical problems arise when settlers remove a sacred plant and bypass knowledge keepers. Martin said that as psychedelics rise in popularity, concerns are mounting that the source of psilocybin in its native environments is dwindling due to urbanization, agricultural land-use change and tourism.

“It’s an issue of cultural appropriation. It’s an issue that is not respectful to Indigenous cultures, because you bring in these uses outside the cultural context,” said Jovel.

Jovel emphasized the cultural value of all plant medicines, even those that don’t carry ceremonial significance. The use of culturally-relevant plant medicines should be intentional and centered around Indigenous knowledge, including the preparation of the medicine in a traditional way and ensuring Indigenous people are adequately compensated.

He acknowledged the potential of embracing the medicinal properties of sacred plants. However, he thinks Western medical research should avoid them altogether.

“I think that sacred plants probably should be left out of medical research. We have millions and millions of plants on the planet that have probably similar [medicinal properties],” he said.

“Maybe they should be left alone because they’re sacred. To understand what is sacred for people is important. What is sacred to you? And what will happen if that's taken away from you?”

Martin is a co-lead at the Naut sa mawt Centre for Psychedelic Research, which is committed to researching psychedelics in a way that is culturally-appropriate. A substantial part of their work is developing an ethical research model that incorporates ceremonial and spiritual components from knowledge keepers. Many of the projects at the Centre are in the ethics phase awaiting approval.

Martin sees value in the exploration of psilocybin as a medicinal tool for supporting those suffering from PTSD, particularly those struggling with intergenerational trauma from residential schools.

“That’s why I got interested in finding out more about how these medicines are being applied and how it possibly could be considered as a response for helping individuals grapple with this level of trauma,” Martin said.

Indigenizing point of care

According to UBC Assistant Professor of teaching at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences Larry Leung, who specializes in integrating Indigenous cultural safety in the pharmacy program, it is important for pharmacy students to be exposed to holistic ways of looking at health care. The goal is to set a stage for future pharmacists to view medicine as inclusive — with ceremony, storytelling, plants and food all considered.

He highlighted the two-eyed seeing approach, a model for research which looks to intersect Western and Indigenous health systems. Martin preferred referring to the model as a “multiple-eyed” seeing, to highlight the diversity of Indigenous perspectives.

At UBC, this includes two required lectures, a community project-based elective and the UBC 23-24 Indigenous Cultural Safety Quartiles (mandatory modules in the course curriculum). Lectures are often co-taught by Indigenous community members.

"We have Indigenous health and cultural safety curriculum across the first 3 years of the pharmacy program including a mandatory course in year 2 of our program and an elective in year 3 of the program," Leung wrote in an email to The Ubyssey.

Leung and his colleague Jason Min also supported the development of a community-based learning project that aims to give back.

In one project, students organized a visual guide of Indigenous plant medicines for a local community. Once they completed the guide, the version kept by the program was redacted to protect the intellectual property of that community.

For Martin, education is integral. Martin cited an experience taking the Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy Graduate Certificate Program as conducive to appreciating cultural nuance through visiting knowledge keepers. The UBC Farm also offers workshops to support knowledge sharing for Indigenous plants in a respectful manner.

Jovel hopes that students and researchers will take it upon themselves to develop a set of personal ethics that they can apply to situations regarding Indigenous knowledge stewardship.

Both Jovel and Leung point to the OCAP principle — which represents the ownership, control, access and protection of Indigenous knowledge and rights — as a valuable strategy to assess how to respect Indigenous freedoms.

“If you take that medicine from Indigenous people, how and what do you give back? It doesn't have to be money, it could be social justice, advocacy, engaging in education — creating a better life for Indigenous people.”

This article was corrected on July 18 at 12:19 p.m. to reflect that Jason Min is not a Dr., and to revise Dr. Larry Leung's title to include his full credentials as an assistant professor. It also now includes a quote from Dr. Leung with more detail about the Indigenous pharmacology curriculum at UBC. The Ubyssey regrets these errors.