WORDS BY ANDREA POLANCO
Indigenous healers have used plants for thousands of years to help with illness. The Frontline explores how climate change is threatening this ancestral practice.
Marika Alvarado was destined to be a medicine woman.
Long before she ever dreamed of carrying on this tradition, Alvarado’s grandmother, mother, and aunts were practicing traditional medicine among the Lipan Mescalero Apache in Texas. Alvarado grew up hearing that she would be the next medicine woman in her family. She was just 5 years old when her ability to see the spirit of an ancestor was revealed. From that moment, she started to train.
“Healing is, to us, about all of the elements coming together to help,” Alvarado said.
Traditional medicine is ancient. It’s used to diagnose, treat, and prevent physical and mental illnesses. It is steeped in cultural beliefs, knowledge, and practices passed down for generations that predate modern medicine. As the oldest form of healthcare—and, oftentimes, the only source of healthcare—traditional medicine is widely used, particularly in low-income countries, because it’s accessible, affordable, and culturally acceptable. This practice is characterized by plant, animal, and mineral-based remedies, spiritual therapies, and manual techniques.
Now, this millenia-old practice is staring down one of its biggest threats yet: climate change. Can traditional medicine survive?
Before climate change became a crisis, plants played a fundamental role in Alvarado’s family. They provided a source of livelihood and empowered her family to look after the sick. More than 50 years later, Alvarado uses many of these same plants to pass down this knowledge by teaching students at her nonprofit Of the Earth Institute of Indigenous Cultures and Teachings. She also follows the path of her ancestors and treats patients with physical and mental ailments.
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During the pandemic, Alvarado has been helping treat community members suffering from bad coughs. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends its own regimen for treating COVID-19, Alvarado turns to bear root, also known as oshá, as it helps open up the respiratory system. (Anyone experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms should seek professional medical advice.)
Some plants have multiple uses. Take, for example, the western wild rose. It’s high in vitamin C and used to fight off infection after surgery. Rose hip, which is the plant’s fruit, is also used to treat anxiety and depressive symptoms. Stinging nettle, on the other hand, functions as an anti-inflammatory—but it can also be eaten as it’s full of nutrients. Some healers even use it to make rope.
Alvarado collects her own plants for her medicine. Plants can be turned into teas, tinctures, poultices, or ointments. In medicine form, they can treat minor ailments, such as sprains and stomachaches, or life-threatening illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer. Sometimes, healing comes in the form of a ceremony, but even the gathering of plants is an important step here. Whenever she forages, Alvarado addresses the plants with a song or an offering like water or tobacco. Tobacco is about asking the plant for permission to be consumed.
“We have to ask permission for everything,” Alvarado said. “As my father used to say, We don’t own anything, but we take care of everything.”
Alvarado likes supporting those around her, especially women. She holds birthing and coming-of-age ceremonies, which require special baths and vary based on the cultures of who’s involved. Their belief systems guide what Alvarado offers.
“We have to ask permission for everything. As my father used to say, We don’t own anything, but we take care of everything.”
“It is about prayer, song, and beauty—that it takes all these people to bring this little life,” she said. “It is different—whether it is food and drink and offerings and how we use the mesquite seed pod as rattles.”
Alvarado also carries out spiritual healing for those who have suffered significant trauma, like rape victims. The process of healing is different. The goal is, often, “to bring them back into their bodies,” Alvarado explained.
“We believe [trauma] is the soul stepping out of the body,” she said. “It is about, How do we put the soul back into the body and make the person whole again, safe again, and strong again?”
Plants play a key role in this essential work, but these healing connections are dying: between 50,000 and 70,000 flowering plant species are used for medicinal purposes worldwide, according to 2008 numbers from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but among these, close to 15,000 species were flagged as threatened with extinction.
About 80% of people—primarily from the Global South—use traditional medicine, according to the World Health Organization. Furthermore, roughly 40% of approved pharmaceutical products rely on natural substances, such as oils and resin, which underscores the urgency of protecting nature.
As the global demand for herbal medicine and natural healthcare rises, the medicinal plants used to make these remedies have been disappearing rapidly due to overharvesting, habitat destruction, and climate change. Since 1990, we’ve been losing nearly three seed-bearing plant species a year. That’s up to 500 times higher than it would be if nature were functioning properly. Linda Black Elk, an Indigenous ethnobotanist working with medicinal plants, has been witnessing the disappearance of these plants firsthand.
“Climate change has had the most profound impact on medicinal plants than almost anything else,” Black Elk said.
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In North Dakota, Black Elk’s home state, 80% of land was in a drought earlier this year—today close to 20% remains in drought. A year ago, three-fourths of the state experienced either extreme or exceptional drought. Climate change is worsening drought conditions across the globe as temperatures rise.
In 2021, researchers published a drought stress study on Atractylodes lancea, an endangered flowering plant species native to East Asia that’s used to treat digestive disorders. The authors found that the drought reduced the plant’s size and dry weight. It also lowered the content of the plant’s essential oil and main bioactive components. The paper noted, “All these had negative impacts on the quality formation of A. lancea under drought stress.”
“We are seeing really important medicinal plants disappearing,” Black Elk lamented.
Like the Atractylodes lancea, other plants are also not growing to their usual size, Black Elk said. She described them as “frail and small”—noting that their smaller size also reduces their productivity and impacts the quantity available for healers to collect and use.
She’s also concerned about the increase in wildfires, which destroy thousands of plants and trees every year. The U.S. wildfire season has technically only started, yet it has already seen over 28,500 wildfires in 2022. Nearly 2 million acres of land have burned. Wildfires in the U.S. are at almost half of last year’s 58,985 recorded fires—but climate change is expected to make these fires worse as increasing temperatures leave forests dry, making them easier to catch ablaze.
Black Elk is also worried about pests and diseases attacking medicinal plants. As of last year, the highly invasive jumping worm has hit at least 15 states, including much of Indian Country. It’s a pest that feeds on the topsoil and strips it of its nutrients, which makes it harder for plants to grow. Because temperature influences insect population, researchers believe climate change may be why this invasive species started to spread rapidly over the last 17 years.
“We are seeing really important medicinal plants disappearing.”
Already, Black Elk is seeing some medicinal plant species disappear as a result of all these environmental changes. She must make tough decisions about how and when she uses nature’s medicine.
”We also have to think, If this plant doesn’t want to grow as much as it used to, then why we are harvesting it?” she said. “How do you harvest sustainability when you are in a 100-year drought? It is something that we have to think about all the time.”
After her grandmother and mother passed away, medicine woman Alvarado didn’t think that she could carry on the medicinal knowledge—that she’d be able to “fill these big shoes,” she said. Then, she realized that to live by the Apache belief system—of embracing movement and adjustment because nothing is permanent—coupled with her rising age, she had to start standing alone and teaching.
In 2013, Alvarado began to host workshops on Indigenous medicine at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School where she shares cultural awareness with medical interns. She now offers herbal medicine healing to complement the school’s Western medicine. She also works with the state’s network of Lone Star Circle of Care clinics to offer patients alternative treatment after they see contemporary doctors. She works with all cultures—from Muslim to Latine—and helps find medicine that suits their needs.
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And after decades of providing physical and spiritual healing—despite witnessing the changes in plant life—Alvarado said she is certain of one thing: climate change will not kill traditional medicine.
“It’s the way we have always lived—that nothing is permanent,” she said. “It is really important that we are always learning how to keep moving and how to adapt. So, if I lose one plant, I know what other plants I can go to that can help or work almost the same way.”
The climate crisis has created a challenge—but out of crisis comes innovation. The people who have lived on the Earth’s landscape for thousands of years won’t forget what their ancestors once knew. In fact, climate change is pushing them to do the opposite, Black Elk said: “to fight more for our Native ways of healing.”