The Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0

DIGITAL EXHIBITION

by Jess Lamar Reece Holler, Curator, Co-Founder, Director, and Lead Artist
Ohio Herbal Elders Project

Origins & Inspirations

The Ohio Herbal Elders Project was proposed in 2018-2019 by Central Ohio herbalist and plant medicine organizer, Lily Kunning, of Haven Herbs. North-Central Ohio-based oral historian, documentary artist, and cultural worker, Jess Lamar Reece Holler—who knew Lily from Lily’s previous worker-owned co-op apothecary in Clintonville, Boline Apothecary—reached out and offered to direct the project and to write grants to get it off the ground. Lily and Jess approached United Plant Savers to be the Ohio Herbal Elders Project’s non-profit partner because of UpS’s highly-networked role in plant medicine organizing in Ohio and beyond.

Initial project funding for the “Ohio Herbal Elders Project 1.0” came in the form of a 2019-2020 Ohio Arts Council ArtSTART grant. While the COVID-19 pandemic—which hit early in the project—prevented the expansive further fundraising initially imagined to fulfill a larger-scope project, this initial seed funding allowed Jess to launch the pilot project with a sprawling interview with UpS founder and prominent Meigs County herbal elder, Paul Strauss of Equinox Botanicals. Jess produced a full-length multimedia documentary piece composed of edited excerpts from Paul’s interview, thousands of documentary photographs taken at Equinox Farm, and original synthesizer tracks, along with a 13-chapter thematic breakdown of Paul’s story. The pieces went live on UpS’s website in 2020, and the project went on pause until further funding could be secured.

Serendipitously, additional funds became available in early 2022 through the catalytic award of an Ohio Arts Council Arts Recovery Initiative Community Project Grant, allowing United Plant Savers to commission Jess to take on the next phase of the project. The “Ohio Elders Project 2.0” proposed to interview five additional Ohio herbal elders paying particular attention to representing plant medicine traditions in diverse Ohio cultural communities and regions with the goal of installing edited interview excerpts, documentary photography, and contextualizing information about the breadth of Ohio’s herbal traditions in an on-site exhibit at UpS’s Goldenseal Sanctuary education center. This is that exhibit!

Ohio Herbal Elders

So, What Is an “Elder”?

The Ohio Herbal Elders project (sometimes called “elder,” after the powerful medicinal shrub Sambucus, or elderberry) was originally conceived by Central Ohio herbalist Lily Kunning as a way to capture the voices, lineages, and experiences of Ohio’s oldest generation of plant medicine practitioners. These include medicine-keepers, land-protectors, and healers at the roots of today’s contemporary explosion in plant medicine traditions, and those whose voices and experiences might be thought of as the closest to being “lost.” As the project has evolved, however, we have come to think of “elder” more capaciously: not as a marker of age or self- or community-appointed wisdom, but as a sign of a practitioner’s intention to steward a tradition for their lifetime and to welcome newer practitioners into the fold. You do not have to be “old” to be an Ohio Herbal Elder, but you have to consciously commit to being a good herbal ancestor.

As our project community planning process commenced, we also recognized that the marginalized nature of plant medicine in Ohio—combined with the realities of intersectional trauma, oppression, dispossession, and violence that Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, trans*, immigrant, and disabled practitioners are subjected to in this world and in the United States under white supremacy, capitalism, and settler-colonialism, in particular—also means that not everybody gets to be an elder in this life or has unbroken access to ancestral plant medicine wisdoms.

Some traditions have gone underground; ancestral knowledges, at times, have been deliberately cut off through slavery, genocide, forced movement, limited binary imaginations of the possibilities of human expression, or halted mobilities; & have had to be recollected, rebuilt, reclaimed, or created for the first time. Moreover — contrary to conventional understandings of folk arts transmission — not all herbal elders have inherited a tradition directly from a parent or grandparent: indeed, many healers & “herb people” have come to plant medicine precisely because of its decolonial potential & legacy as indigenous medicine — practices & ways of being in relation with place, people, & plants that can help connect us back to right, healing relationship with land, towards more just futures.

Some traditions have gone underground. Ancestral knowledge, at times, has been deliberately cut off through slavery, genocide, forced movement, limited binary imaginations of the possibilities of human expression, or halted mobilities and have had to be recollected, rebuilt, reclaimed, or created for the first time. Moreover, contrary to conventional understandings of folk arts transmission, not all herbal elders have inherited a tradition directly from a parent or grandparent. Indeed, many healers and “herb people” have come to plant medicine precisely because of its decolonial potential and legacy as Indigenous medicine, including— practices and ways of being in relation with place, people, and plants that can help connect us back to right, healing relationship with land, towards more just futures.

To this end, we have worked to assemble a diverse slate of Ohio Herbal Elders—wise elders who, in actuality, span the age spectrum, from their late 30s to early 70s, while representing different cultural and ethnic traditions, different plant medicine systems, and different regions of Ohio. While the Athens, Ohio region is certainly recognized as an epicenter of the American Herbal Renaissance movement for a reason, it would be a sad error to imagine that white back-to-the-landers in the baby boom era were or are the only contributors to Ohio’s plant medicine landscape. Indeed, Ohio’s remarkable diversity means that thousands of plant medicine traditions bloom and flourish here. This diversity along with the survival of a plurality of plant medicine traditions are our strengths.

Oral Histories

Our five interviews are just that – snapshots of five practitioners, five traditions, and four regions of Ohio. Take these practitioners’ stories, not as a place to stop, or a final word on all the plant wisdom to be found here, but rather as an indication of the cultural and regional diversity of practice found across the region we now call “Ohio.”

Herbal Elders Project: Annie Hsu Griffin

Annie Hsu Griffin (HSU & Co.)
Central Ohio

Rebecca Wood (Hopewood Holistic Health)
Southeastern Ohio

Rebecca Wood (Hopewood Holistic Health)
Southeastern Ohio

Christian Totty (Loam Acupuncture & Herbal medicine)
Northwestern Ohio

Christian Totty (Loam Acupuncture & Herbal medicine)
Northwestern Ohio

Peter Borchard (Companion Plants)
Southeastern Ohio

Peter Borchard (Companion Plants)
Southeastern Ohio

Diana Sette (University Hispitals' Rainbow Babies)

Diana Sette (University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies)
Northeastern Ohio

Plant Medicine

An Undersung Folklife + Cultural Arts Tradition

“Folklife” is the most expansive understanding of folk and traditional cultural arts genres. Reaching beyond limited recognition of verbal arts or material cultural traditions, the framework of “folklife” recognizes complex ritual and festival traditions, land-based knowledge, vernacular architecture, folk belief, and relations with environment as critical folk arts forms.

Herbalism and plant-based medicines are textbook examples of folk and cultural arts. They are often-marginalized traditional knowledge systems, deeply tied to place, which are almost always passed down informally, outside of institutional schools and settings through face-to-face instruction and in 1:1 settings. Strangely, however, traditional plant medicine, along with foodways traditions, remain among the least funded of the traditional arts genres at least by state arts councils. Many funders shy away from funding the documentation, conservation, amplification, and transmission of herbal medicine traditions because of an explicit or implicit bias towards Western allopathic medicine. While other folk and cultural arts are recognized as important cultural arts forms, plant medicinal traditions are still actively oppressed and, sometimes, feared. Others may simply hew too tightly to limited disciplinary frameworks, which refuse to see the complex interdisciplinary work of plant medicine, which weaves together science, body-based experiences, energy work, spirituality, culture, and art as a celebrated and necessary community cultural arts genre.

Regardless of the reason, this pattern of underfunding and under-recognition from the folk arts and cultural heritage realm—paired with ridicule (at best) or persecution (at worst) from the mainstream medical establishment—has pushed plant-based medicine even further underground, even as it has developed its own rigorous science, training institutes, and alternative systems of certification. One result has been that, despite the flourishing of the “American herbal renaissance” in the 1970s-1990s, plant medicine knowledge remains endangered, and, in some regions, rare. Moreover, the specific local traditions, lineages, and stories of how practitioners came to plant-based healing—the teachers, spaces, and networks that foster plant medicine and herbal knowledge movements—have not yet been systematically documented.

We are proud of the Ohio Arts Council and ArtsMidwest’s pathbreaking investment in the Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, not only for making this long-overdue work possible, but for setting a strong precedent of recognition of Ohio’s herbal and traditional plant medicine traditions as important and culturally-significant folk and cultural arts genres—cultural art-forms deserving recognition. We hope our state, regional, and national folk arts infrastructures’ investments in Ohio’s herbal elders and in transmission of plant medicine knowledge to new generations of practitioners will continue robustly into the future.

Oral History As Methodology & Movement Praxis

The Ohio Herbal Elders Project is, at heart, a documentary arts project that combines oral history interviewing, documentary photography and videography, and folklife-style interviews about herbal medicine in practice (including herb walks) to capture some of the fullness of Ohio’s diverse plant medicine traditions both in memory and on the land today. But what is oral history, as a method, a tool, and a practice, and what makes it so suited to documenting and amplifying the life stories of Ohio’s plant medicine practitioners and elders?

Oral history, like many methodologies, has both institutional and movement histories. Under various names, oral testimony and the recording of oral tradition have been foundational praxes in justice struggles—from the traditional narratives of Indigenous peoples passed down through oral tradition to the “history of below” movements of the America 1970s to the testimonial tradition in Latinx oral narrative practice. Oral history has been mobilized by marginalized peoples across the world to speak truth to power because marginalized traditions are less likely to be recorded in writing, long the tool of powerful oppressors.

Herbal knowledge—itself a marginalized and often-persecuted tradition, especially in the dominant context of western allopathic medicine—had largely been passed down through oral tradition and practice until a spate of books kicked off the so-called “American Herbal Renaissance” in the 1970s. Culturally-specific herbal knowledge, however, is still often passed down through face-to-face training. Plant medicine, after all, is bodywork, an energetic, and a fundamentally *relational* modality; and knowing and learning plants and their uses as well as facilitating healing relationships between plants and humans are things that exceed text.

Thus, oral history was the natural choice for methodology in our project. Oral history interviews inhabit the space of memory but also allow opportunities for dreaming speculatively in the future. Oral history interviews are also inherently collaborative and are a conversation between an interviewer—assigned with the task of guiding the narrator through their memories—and a narrator. Interview excerpts here have been edited so that each narrator tells their own story in their own words and have been joined by documentary photography illustrating the places, plant allies, and context of each herbal elder’s practice.

Plant Medicine in Place

Indigenous Histories of What Some Call “Ohio”

The land that settlers now call “Ohio” was long home to diverse Indigenous peoples, communities, and civilizations—first, as a vibrant center of a series of complex mound-building civilizations; and later, in the era of white settlement of the Americas, as the refugee homelands of tribes and nations pushed Southward and Westward from other regions, who confederated on these lands to fight for Indigenous rights of occupancy, spirituality, and land use.

These lands were the ancient homelands of two civilizations that archaeologists call the “Adena” and “Hopewell” peoples—collectively called the “Woodlands” cultures, which included civilizations responsible for massive earthwork structures like the Newark Earthworks (Licking County) and Serpent Mound (Adams County). By the period of settlement, this place became the home of several tribes and confederacies, many of whom were displaced to Ohio from ancestral homelands at points North, East, and South. Those groups included the Seneca-Cayuga, the Lenape, the Shawnee, the Wyandot, the Ottawa, and the Myaamia—groups who increasingly confederated together through concerted organizing, in the period of & after the American Revolutionary War, as violent incursions from white settlers increased in the region: which, per settler governments, became first the “Northwest Territory” (along with today’s Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) in 1787. Despite this ruling, the region was still heavily occupied by Indigenous peoples, who contested this designation and, with it, the open call to white settlement of Indigenous lands.

A confederation led by Blue Jacket (Shawnee) and Little Turtle (Myaamia), including Wyandot and Lenape people, soundly defeated Governor St. Clair’s army in the “Battle with No Name” near today’s Fort Recovery, an example of powerful pan-Indigenous organizing against the settlement of today’s Ohio that is rarely taught in Ohio history books. After the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Ohio’s tribes were forced to sign the Treaty of Greenville (1795), which drew a horizontal line across the state limiting Indigenous access to only the northern portion of the state and on designated reservations like that of the Wyandot people near today’s Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

These land-grabs and limitations in indigenous movement through their own lands prompted yet another round of pan-Indigenous organizing for sovereignty and mobility on the land. The so-called “Indian Revival” movement organized by Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet”) joined together the remaining Indigenous people in Ohio—including the Seneca, Ottawa, Wyandot, and Shawnee—in a movement to abandon white settler ways, products, and economy for a pan-Indigenous spiritual revival that would result in a reclamation of Ohio’s lands from white settlers. While the confederacy was defeated at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Ohio’s Indigenous people continued organizing beyond the forced removal of Ohio tribes in the 1810s-1840s. While the Wyandot peoples were the last to be formally removed from their reservation at Upper Sandusky in 1843, many Indigenous people and descendants remained in Ohio and are here to this day.

Plant Medicine in Place

Towards a Decolonial Ohio Herbalism

What does the Ohio Herbal Elders Project have to do with Indigenous histories, heritages, and futures on the land now known as Ohio? Only…everything?!

Plant-based medicine practices have long been Indigenous practices rooted in deep, reparative, healing relationships with the native medicinal plants of ancestral landscapes. Herbal medicine traditions have also been appropriated, interrupted, stolen, and colonized, but many have also been reclaimed as powerful ways for healers and practitioners to connect with roots and place.

Documenting Ohio’s plant medicine traditions is not possible without recognizing the violent history and traumatic presence of settler-colonialism in the region and requires radical reimagination of the possibility of repatriated futures in which Indigenous peoples with historic ties to Ohio can thrive on and steward the land they belong to. Currently, the federal government recognizes no tribes with historic ties to Ohio within the State of Ohio—a history reflecting patterns of colonization, genocide, and land treaty concessions more than the actual cultural composition of the state. That does not mean Indigenous people (from here and displaced from elsewhere) weren’t here or aren’t still here today. Indigenous people are alive and well in what we call Ohio—and beyond in the states to which tribes with historic ties to Ohio were removed in the 1800s: including Oklahoma and Kansas. Indigenous communities within and beyond today’s “Ohio” are organizing to reclaim their ancestral relations with these lands, with Indigenous cultural ways and with the plants that grow and give medicine here. “Landback” is one such movement.

“Landback” refers to a set of Indigenous and allied material strategies for not just imagining, but practically enacting, decolonial futures, working to give or sell land wrongfully held by white and other settlers back to Indigenous tribes with roots in a region. While landback movements might be more prominent in other regions—like the sacred Black Hills region of the Dakotas—Ohio has vibrant contemporary landback movements happening, including active collaborations with the Eastern Tribe of Shawnee of Oklahoma to steward Ohio earthworks and to inscribe the work of the Ancient Hopewell, Adena, and Fort Ancient ancestors on UNESCO’s World Heritage list; and a recent landback victory for the Wyandotte Nation (now of Oklahoma), who received the historically Black-stewarded Wyandot Mission Church that long stood at Upper Sandusky (Ohio’s last protected reservation as a Wyandotte Nation holding in 2019.

Landback movements also include reclaiming and stewarding Indigenous plant medicines. Plant medicine—whether from within one or across diverse cultural systems—are predominantly Indigenous practices tied to deep, unbroken relationship with and stewardships of plants, land, and place. Imagining vibrant futures for plant medicine means simultaneously committing to structural justice, divestment from colonial holdings, and healing and abundance for the original inhabitants of this land.


Jess Lamar Reece Holler (Caledonia Northern Folk Studios) – North-Central Ohio: Caledonia & Columbus, Ohio

Documentary artist, folklorist, historic preservationist, and community cultural arts and heritage organizer, Jess Lamar Reece Holler has deep roots in Marion County, Ohio. The child of a graduate of Caledonia’s River Valley High School (built on a WWII toxic chemical dump and the site of a cancer cluster and EPA investigation in the 1990), Jess lives with inherited Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and grew up in health food stores and integrative medicine clinics as Jess’s family hunted for answers and worked to reduce their own body burdens from environmental illness.

Though Jess was passionate about creating (cartooning, creative writing, and songwriting on a Sony kids’ cassette deck) as a kid, it wasn’t until Jess trained as a public folklorist (someone who collaborates with communities to amplify cultural arts and heritage traditions) and began advocating for community cultural artists that she began seriously working as a photographer, oral historian, media producer, graphic designer, exhibit-builder, videographer, and festival planner.

With Marion County abolitionist organizer and educator Johnnie Jackson, Jess co-founded and now directs Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History: Marion County, Ohio’s countywide folk arts for social justice program, which works to document, exhibit, and amplify Marion County’s undersung cultural heritage for more just futures, while building livelihoods for Marion County folklife and cultural artists through expanded local arts and culture economies.

Jess is also principal at Caledonia Northern Folk Studios—a documentary arts, social justice, and historic preservation consultancy serving North-Central Ohio & beyond—and consults with organizations nationwide on the “equity budgeting” model of fair pay for all people involved in cultural work including documentary artists and community collaborators.

Jess serves on the board of the Terradise Nature Center in Caledonia, Ohio and founded and directs the Terradise Environmental Arts Residency, the first paid rural environmental arts residency in the North-Central Ohio region, hosted on five gorgeous, forested acres along the Whetstone (Olentangy) River.

Jess is also active in the Village of Caledonia (pop. 560) with downtown revitalization, creative place keeping, and heritage organizing work including through an oral history project and downtown historic district nomination for Caledonia’s historic Public Square as well as vending and coordinating a summer music series at the Caledonia Farmers’ Market.

Jess is passionate about “preservation justice”—everyday, working-class peoples’ rights to access the tools and incentives available for historic preservation. She has been working for over a decade to save, rehabilitate, reimagine, and reopen Caledonia’s historic 1897 Temple and Masonic Block buildings, which housed Jess’s family’s greengrocery store, Reece’s Market, from 1933-2010. The buildings were listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.

For more, & to get involved, visit: caledonianorthern.org || marionvoices.org

United Plant Savers – Meigs County, Ohio

Founded in 1994 by Rosemary Gladstar, Paul Strauss, and a network of American herbalists who made up the “American Herbal Renaissance,” of the 1970s-1980s, United Plant Savers was formed to call attention to an unintended side effect of the 1970s-1990s revival of traditional plant medicines in America—the endangerment of wild medicinal plants. Rooted in the twin purposes of education about and conservation of wild medicinal plants, United Plant Savers found its home—the “Goldenseal Sanctuary” near Rutland, Ohio, in Meigs County—when UpS co-founder Paul Strauss donated a piece of ecologically-significant forest-land adjacent to his home in Meigs County known as Equinox Farm and home of Equinox Botanicals. Rich in goldenseal, ginseng, and the other “big herbs,” UpS’s Goldenseal Sanctuary has become both a nature preserve and a fertile ground for education, propagation, and advocacy for traditional medicinal plants in and beyond the Central Appalachian region.

In 2019, UpS opened its Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation—a center for on-site education and research, which now houses the Jim and Peggy Duke Ethnobotanical Library and Archives, a remarkable database of botanical drawings and notes from the Amazon, Costa Rica, Appalachia, and Maine joined with a small herbarium. The Duke Ethnobotanical Archives will soon be available online and open to researchers.

While UpS has a big footprint in Meigs County, the work of the organization is international in scope. UpS’s flagship programs include the famed annual International Herb Symposium, a botanical sanctuary network, medicinal plant conservation and education, a species-at-risk database, forest-grown plant certification programs, the Sacred Seeds program, and more. UpS also hosts the Journal of Plant Medicine Conservation and an annual Deep Ecology artists residency on-site at the Meigs County Goldenseal Sanctuary. UpS also conducts active medicinal plant conservation research around the world to help identify and protect vulnerable species. Their work also honors Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge.

Susan Leopold (Patawomeck) is Executive Director at United Plant Savers and director of the Sacred Seeds Project. An accomplished ethnobotanist, oral historian, author, farmer, recreational tree-climber, and traditional medicinal plant advocate, Susan has learned with and fought for traditional medicinal plants and their keepers around the globe, including special relationships with traditional medicine-keepers in Costa Rica. Alongside her botanical practices, Susan brings a rich history in preserving and building digital access for rare ethnobotanical manuscripts. Susan helped plan the OHEP 2.0 project & exhibit.

Kelsey Siekkinen is a botanist, artist, and organizer living and working in Meigs County. Kelsey coordinates special projects, administration, and communications for United Plant Savers. Kelsey helped plan and administer the OHEP project and got us online!

Oral History Audio Rights & Usage: All Ohio Herbal Elders Project oral history interviews are (c) Each Narrator & Jess Lamar Reece Holler (Caledonia Northern Folk Studios), 2022. Oral history interviews are, by default, joint works, with rights shared by both narrator & interviewer. Rights for each interview are as follows:

Hsu Griffin, Annie & Jess Lamar Reece Holler. Oral History with Annie Hsu Griffin. Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, in collaboration with United Plant Savers || © Annie Hsu Griffin & Jess Lamar Reece Holler, 2022+. All rights reserved; for personal, non-commercial use only. No derivative works. Contact for any research requests.

Wood, Rebecca & Jess Lamar Reece Holler. Oral History with Rebecca Wood. Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, in collaboration with United Plant Savers || © Rebecca Wood & Jess Lamar Reece Holler, 2022+. All rights reserved; for personal, non-commercial use only. No derivative works. Contact for any research requests.

Borchard, Peter & Jess Lamar Reece Holler. Oral History with Peter Borchard. Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, in collaboration with United Plant Savers || © Peter Borchard & Jess Lamar Reece Holler, 2022+. All rights reserved; for personal, non-commercial use only. No derivative works. Contact for any research requests.

Sette, Diana & Jess Lamar Reece Holler. Oral History with Diana Sette. Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, in collaboration with United Plant Savers || © Diana Sette & Jess Lamar Reece Holler, 2022+. All rights reserved; for personal, non-commercial use only. No derivative works. Contact for any research requests.

Totty, Christian & Jess Lamar Reece Holler. Oral History with Christian Totty. Ohio Herbal Elders Project 2.0, in collaboration with United Plant Savers || © Christian Totty & Jess Lamar Reece Holler, 2022+. All rights reserved; for personal, non-commercial use only. No derivative works. Contact for any research requests.

Photography Rights & Usage: Project photography (c) 2022+ Jess Lamar Reece Holler, Caledonia Northern Folk Studios; & © 2022+ Christian Totty, LOAM Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine. All rights reserved by photographers. 

General Use Guidelines & Restrictions:

All media presented here for personal, non-commercial use only. Project media cannot be used, reproduced, or duplicated in any subsequent media production, research, or publication – i.e., no derivative works – without the explicit permission of the rights-holders. Given the personal nature of these oral history interviews, we explicitly ask any potential journalists or researchers wishing to work with these interviews to reach out first, with a request for use & explanation of your project, so your request can be considered by the living, breathing narrators. 

Please contact Caledonia Northern Folk Studios for permissions or rights negotiations. 

FUNDER ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This exhibit—highlighting the diversity of traditional plant medicine practice across cultures and regions in the place now known as Ohio—has been made possible, in part, through generous support of an Arts Resiliency Initiative Community Project Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and ArtsMidwest, funded through American Recovery Plan dollars distributed by the National Endowment for the Arts. The opinions expressed in this exhibit are not necessarily those of our funders.

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