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Herbalist Sage LaPena speaks at Mills

Sage LaPena, an herbalist and ethnobotanist based in Northern California, spoke about native herbalism as a celebration of Native American Heritage Month in the Mills Hall Living Room on Nov. 16.

The event was organized by members of the on-campus Indigenous Women’s Alliance, the ethnic studies program, and the race, gender and sexuality department. It was the culminating event celebrating Native American Heritage Month on-campus.

LaPena discussed the practice of native herbalism and the relationship of humans, plants and environment in the Mills Hall living room. The room was filled with the fragrance of the plants that LaPena had brought and attendees were invited to participate by touching and smelling the plants. LaPena’s discussion focused on the importance of developing a reciprocal relationship with plants when they are used for healing and medicine.

“We already all practice herbalism,” LaPena said. “Many of us brush our teeth with minty toothpaste, or we chew gum.”

Aromatherapy creates a response which raises or lowers our immune system, and people can react differently to different plants. In this way, herbalism is not a reductive science.

“When we talk about, what is it that I can do, take, what can you give me to cure this certain thing, part of it is the actual getting down and harvesting the plant itself. Harvesting the root, being in the ground with them. You’re getting those aromatics, you’re being in the soil,” LaPena said.

Instead, LaPena said that you must be aware of your own participation in the medicinal process. 

“Herbalism is a relationship,” LaPena said. “It’s a relationship with your external relationship via those plant beings and your internal relationship.”

Viola LaBeau, president of the Indigenous Women’s Alliance, says the event was publicized on Facebook and got nearly 700 responses. People came from on- and off-campus to hear LaPena speak, from the Bay Area community and further.

“This is all a part of American Indian Heritage Month,” LaBeau said, “and in doing that, in incorporating more Native life into Mills – so there is a presence here within our community, so there’s an active native community here so we can bring something for future native students.”

Melinda Micco is a professor of ethnic studies who helped organize the event. She believes that keeping wisdom about native herbalism and practices alive is important to the Mills community.

“We need these traditional healers,” Micco said. “They have a very different relationship with plants, and things that heal us.” 

Micco says this is important knowledge to share with Mills students, especially for its potential to be offered as an alternative choice to traditional medicine.

“There are tons of healing plants at Mills,” Micco said, It’s important for Mills students, when they think they have to take healing outside or western to think about ‘Oh, maybe I could walk outside my dorm room and find the plant to heal me.’”

LaPena emphasized the importance of regional plants and their healing properties for people in different areas of the world, saying that people’s relationship to their place in the world is an important part of practicing herbalism.

“Herbalism is about people,” LaPena said. “About our connection to the environment.”

LaPena advised people interested in learning more about herbalism to begin by getting outside and exploring their surrounding area. 

“If you are just starting out, there’s a park over here, there’s a park over there, there are mountains and foothills over there,” LaPena said. “I walked beautiful mountains and waterfalls – they’re right outside here.”