Photos: Richelle Thomas
Richelle Thomas is honoring her roots in more ways than one.
As the founder of Protect Medicinal Plants and a Wild Innovator in the Wild Elements Impact program, the Arizona Native American studies the impact of legacy mining on the Navajo Nation and its sacred medicinal plants, including Salvia and Thelesperma. “I consider myself a toxicologist more than anything,” says the PhD candidate, who is herself a member of the Navajo (or Diné) community. “First, I look at the presence of heavy metals in the soil and plant life of our tribal lands, and the impact that pollution has on humans,” she explains. “Then, I will put forward that research to develop tribal policies and laws that protect Indigenous land, resources, and people.”
We spoke with Richelle, her mother Irene Nez, and her grandmother, herbalist Lena Nez, about the importance of her work, the meaning of plant medicine, and the best ways to support the Diné community and their sacred land.
In the Diné culture, what are medicinal plants?RICHELLE THOMAS: They’re plants we use in healing and spiritual ceremonies specific to our own Diné or Navajo culture. I study them primarily as a toxicologist, which means I look at the interface of the environment and the impact it has on humans. Then I will use that data to advocate for tribal policies and Indigenous communities. I’m a big STEM lady!
Do you prefer to be called Diné or Navajo?
RICHELLE THOMAS: Either is fine! We recognize ourselves in 2 different ways. In the Westernized context of the US government, we recognize ourselves as the Navajo Nation. Within ourselves, we say “Diné.” It means “the people” in the Navajo language, so that’s how it’s translated. We also associate ourselves with the Five-Fingered People who walk through the Earth.
How did you begin your journey with medicinal plants?IRENE NEZ: We would take her as a child! And her grandparents would take her, too. We started by taking her out to gather tobacco. There’s many different kinds of plant medicine—for people, for sheep, for other animals, for every living thing. We used to take her out and ask her to try and identify each plant, and what it does.
RICHELLE THOMAS: They did! My grandparents, too. If it wasn’t for that exposure, it wouldn’t have clicked for me. My grandma and grandpa were my first teachers.
IRENE NEZ: There are only certain places where medicinal plants grow, and those places are passed from generation to generation. I learned from my father, who was a medicine man and herbalist. That’s where we got our teaching.
RICHELLE THOMAS: Actually, my maternal grandpa Norris Nez Sr. specialized in Indigenous environmental and human rights here in Arizona. He was a plaintiff in the San Francisco Peaks case—that’s about a sacred mountain that is polluted with artificial snowmaking. He went to the Ninth Circuit Court and the UN to discuss how it’s a culturally significant place for the tribal nations. And that was on his extra time! His occupation and specialty for us would be what you’d call a “medicine man.” And he worked extensively with medicinal plants. When I was getting my master’s degree, I said, “Hey Grandpa, I’m studying uranium and how it impacts mining communities,” because our communities have been hit really hard by open-pit uranium and coal mining. And he was like, “Okay, scientifically, how does that impact us over generations? How does the [plant] medicine we’re gathering change because of that pollution, and how does it change us?” That’s how I started looking at the presence of uranium in sage.
It seems like everyone wants to “sage” their houses now. How does that impact your work?RICHELLE THOMAS: It certainly makes it challenging. Some of the medicines I work with are cross-cultural—plants are used as herbal remedies in all cultures and places, obviously. But traditional and sacred plant medicine is more localized in the Navajo Nation’s region and the Southwest. So I always say yes and no when people outside our community ask about using plant medicine in their own lives. And a lot of it has to do with harvesting.
RICHELLE THOMAS: Right now, it’s getting harder to find these medicines. Where we live on the [Navajo] reservation, a lot of our medicine plants? We don’t have them anymore. We have to drive a distance to gather them, because it’s getting hotter. Less of them grow; it’s harder to find them; and some border towns take advantage of native knowledge and pay for the plants, even though they’re not for sale. They’re sacred for our people.
LENA NEZ: It’s very hard to find them out there. It takes a while to find the medicine you’re looking for. There is medicine if it rains. But there’s no rain! And the plants we used to have are barely coming back.
Some endangered animals are brought back to the wild through incubation or DNA splicing. In a similar vein, would it be acceptable to regrow these plants hydroponically, or revive them in a lab?LENA NEZ: If it was grown like that, the integrity of the medicine will not be the same. Plant medicine was given to us way back from the Holy People, with a mission on how to gather them. It’s supposed to be gathered by people and grown by rain. That’s all part of their power.
RICHELLE THOMAS: This is a great transition for advocacy, and having to preserve the integrity of plants due to human-induced causes… When we look at genetically modifying something, we look to replace its value. You can’t do that when the value is sacred.
IRENE NEZ: There’s also the ritual. It’s not just the plant. When we harvest it, we take one plant; we give an offering; we say a prayer.
What’s a part of your job that’s surprised you?RICHELLE THOMAS: That I’ve become a STEM ambassador to some of my community! With Native communities, there’s an apprehension with researchers coming in and out, because they don’t translate their information into Diné or share and explain their findings with the people—even though they’re studying our home! Sometimes I don’t even know, and I’m literally a scientist! It’s exploitative. And it’s a bigger issue than I realized, how to bridge that barrier so our community leaders and our scientists can learn and solve problems together.
How can we help your work?RICHELLE THOMAS: The best way to protect plant medicine is to understand that it’s not meant to be mass-harvested. It’s not part of a trend. It’s part of a community.
LENA NEZ: This medicine is for our people. It’s not to be shared with others. This medicine that we make here, the way to protect it is to respect that it’s part of a ritual… The Navajo, we are a different people, and so our medicine is different. It depends on our connection to this Earth and these plants.
RICHELLE THOMAS: Learn about medicinal plants, for sure. But part of that learning is listening to the communities where these plants come from, and respecting our rights and our access to our own culture. And advocating for it, too!