Leigh Joseph is the founder and creator of Skwalwen Botanicals (formerly Wild Botanicals).
Shortly after relaunching her line of all natural Indigenous skincare products, we caught up with Joseph to talk about the transition, her hands-on process and inspirations.
You talk a lot about the importance of the connection between food and culture, which leads me to wonder where your interest in skincare comes from and why you decided to make it the focus of your business (as opposed to edible food products)? I chose to develop a skincare line incorporating culturally important plants because I love bringing together cultural teachings with plants that offer nourishment and protection. Many Indigenous plants are both foods and medicines and many of these culturally important plants also have topical benefits. I find there is great creative inspiration that comes from learning about the Indigenous relationships with certain plants, how they have been used and then developing beautiful skincare recipes based on this context. The products are influenced by ancestral knowledge and relationships with plants and the ritual of skincare connects us to plants in a mindful way.
What are your early experiences with skincare and how do they translate into your own line? I remember my nani, my mom’s mother, praising me for how well moisturized I was as a teen! I would spend allowance and wages on skincare products such as moisturizers, facial cleansers and more. I tried to seek out the most natural options I could. I really loved feeling that I was caring for my skin. My mom always said she wasn’t sure where I inherited this interest from but she assured me it wasn’t from her. When I had children I became more aware of what I was putting on my babies’ skin and this raised awareness of what I was putting on my skin. When I started to develop recipes for bath and body oils and salves to have on hand in my home I was smitten with the process. I spend a lot of time harvesting and processing plants each season, and having recipes to incorporate those into was very exciting.
Is there any one product or ingredient in particular that you feel the most connected to and why is that? That’s a tricky one. There are many plants I love. But if I were to pick one it would be wild rose. The scent of rose is transcendent. Whenever I harvest rose petals I place one on my tongue and let the flavor and scent take over. The delicate sweetness of the edible petals combined with the beautiful scent, defines summer for me. Kalkáy (cal-kay) is the Squamish name for wild rose. Kalkáy is a food and medicine plant that has been utilized for thousands of years by my ancestors in the very landscape that I now live on with my family. When I mindfully harvest 2-3 petals from each flower alongside my children I feel so happy and at peace with the continuity of knowledge that is embedded in those times. I am picking up the knowledge of my ancestors and passing it on to my children. I mentioned only harvesting 2-3 petals and leaving petals behind on each flower. The purpose of this practice is to leave a place for pollinators to land so that they can pollinate the flowers which will develop into a rosehip, the fruit of the wild rose, which is an important food to birds and wildlife. I also harvest rosehips each season for a vitamin C rich tea to drink throughout the winter months.
What seasonal ingredient are you most excited to see come into season and why? How do you plan on utilizing it? I am so excited when cottonwood buds start to come into season! These are the fragrant leaf buds of cottonwood, sometimes called black poplar. In Squamish the name is kw’enikwáy (kwa-in-i-kway). The leaf buds actually set the season before and overwinter on the branches. In the early spring they start to become very resinous and the scent is incredible. This scent transports me to spring when I smell it. Picking the kw’enikwáy buds leaves your fingers covered with the amber resin and when infused into carrier oils these antibacterial and antimicrobial leaf buds transform the oil into a potent topical treatment for cuts, scrapes and bruises as well as an effective chest rub to help with congestion. Such an amazing medicine. Because it is the leaf buds you harvest it is ideal to look for wind fallen branches to take the buds from so that you don’t over harvest from the new growth of a cottonwood tree.
You harvest your ingredients and make every product by hand yourself, which is super impressive! What is the most challenging part of the creation process? How has your process changed or grown since you began making skincare? I am finding that as my business grows that it is becoming clear that I will need help with the production side of the business. I hope to apprentice someone within my community to learn how to make some of the recipes and also to help with the labelling and bottling of products. I have figured out many systems and recipes that I can now make much more efficiently than when I first started but I still have a lot of learning to do. Owning a small business is so much more than the creation of a product that you are passionate about, I’ve learned. There are many elements to running a successful business no matter how small. I’m excited by this learning and appreciative for mentors that I can reach out to with questions!
What is your most invaluable tool? My harvesting basket.
You officially relaunched your brand in September. Why did it feel like the right time to make this shift? I recently moved home to Squamish. I didn’t grow up here but I’ve always had a pull to spend time on this landscape and to be close to culture and family. When I had my kids I felt that pull even more strongly. When I moved back it became clear to me that in order to ground the business within my cultural home, and more deeply within the intentions behind my business, that choosing a Squamish name for the brand was an important step. It felt right and I am so happy with the response. To be honest I was nervous to put a name in an unfamiliar language to many out there into the market place but the responses have been so supportive and heartwarming and I’m so happy I chose this to be the time to make this shift. I also have a lot of Squamish youth showing interest in my business and feeling very proud to see their culture reflected in Skwalwen Botanicals.
What new opportunities, changes and/or risks are you excited about pursuing with Skwalwen Botanicals that you maybe felt too unexperienced or limited by as Wild Botanicals? I’m very excited to continue to create products and branding for my business that put forward strong, beautiful and healthy images of Indigenous women connecting to the land and selfcare through this skincare line. I plan to develop out a philanthropic aspect to my business to give back to community and the land through various seasonal partnerships. I also will start a small wholesale program with local stockists. This is something I have received a lot of interest in and I look forward to exploring that avenue with Skwalwen.
Besides the natural and traditional ingredients available in your surroundings, what have been other unexpected or unusual sources of inspiration you’ve encountered? I am so inspired by the creative process. I have trouble limiting my ideas for product development because there are so many incredible plant ingredients to work with. I love the collaborations that have come my way because of my business. Working with other people creatively to further the vision for Skwalwen has been very exciting. I also find that researching other brands, not necessarily in the apothecary category, has inspired a lot of excitement and ideas for the future. It’s not so much that I aim to recreate an idea but I find when I explore other entrepreneurs and their approaches to their craft that it inspires me with new ideas for how to build out my business in creative and exciting ways.
Lastly, I’d love to know what is the significance of your ancestral name, Styawat? What does it say about you personally and what was the process of acquiring it? My name was given to me by my great uncle Chester Thom from the Nanaimo or Snuneymuxw side of my family. He was a very important person to me in my childhood. My visits with him and my great auntie Eva at their home on an acreage along the Nanaimo River were some of the most important times I spent developing parts of my identity as an Indigenous woman. I didn’t know it at the time but when I would go out fishing with my uncle or help him in his smokehouse hanging salmon or harvesting fresh vegetables from his garden I was reinforcing a part of who I was to become that I have drawn on many times in the years since. I was developing a lived experience of what it felt like to be held in love by family, the land and culture. Both my great uncle and aunt had very difficult residential school experiences. I also didn’t know that as a child, but when I visited them and shared a delicious meal that I had a hand in preparing, when I listened to them speak their language, I was witnessing resilience. My uncle gave me the name Styawat when I turned 12 and it has been a source of protection and healing for me since then. It translates roughly to “the wind that blows away the clouds and brings the sun” and I carry that name with love and pride.