Preserving Cultural Remedies

  • Faith learned about the use of many herbs for home remedies from her father in Louisiana when she was a small girl. (Photo by Kyle Norris)

When most of us get sick we go to the doctor and get medicine. But
some people are holding onto the old ways of healing. And many
people think we could learn a lot from the old ways. Kyle Norris has
this story:


When most of us get sick we go to the doctor and get medicine. But
some people are holding onto the old ways of healing. And many
people think we could learn a lot from the old ways. Kyle Norris has
this story:

The small store is called Nature’s Products. It’s in a neighborhood with
a lot of abandoned buildings and store-front churches. When you walk
inside the store, the smell of incense clings to your clothes.
Green plants hang in the windows, and there are jars and jars of bulk herbs lining
the shelves.

Gary Wanttaga opened the store thirty years ago. He’s always been
interested in natural healing techniques and herbal medicine. That all
might sound new-agey, but this place is not new-agey at all. The
reason Wanttaga opened the store in his hometown of Detroit was
because he wanted to help the people who lived here:

“In lot of urban areas people are very limited on resources. They’re limited
with money. They’re limited with shopping resources. And this is one way
that I try to give back to the community”

Wanttaga says one of the main reasons he’s stayed in Detroit is because of
his customers. They’re some of his biggest teachers. Many of his
customers are older African-Americans. They came from the South to work
in the factories during World War II. When they came they brought with
them a cultural knowledge of herbs and natural healing techniques.

One of his customers is 72-year-old Faith. That’s her legal name – just
“Faith.” She grew up in a segregated farming community in Louisiana. Her
father was a farmer, and he taught her all about the herbs:

“I’m the youngest child of all, so I’m the baby. And he would often let me
ride on his shoulder. And sometime I’d be saying ‘Papa, what is this?’ and he
would tell me what that was, we’d be walking through the fields and he
would tell me what was, and he would tell me different things, what you use this for
what you use that for. I had 100 questions. Boy, I was a kid I had a 100

She says back then, everyone knew about the herbs, and everyone used
them. At that time, people who were poor or black or who lived in rural
areas did not often have the option of going to a doctor. And so they turned
to the plants and trees around them for medicine, and they developed a great
knowledge about what did and didn’t work to keep people healthy:

“The pine tree was used for many things. Because it’s one of things where
you get turpentine from. It was definitely used for healing. And we used
turpentine for sores. And it works today! If you get a cut and you put
turpentine on it immediately as soon after you hit it, it will never be sore.”

Herbs were out first form of medicine. That’s what Suzanna Zick says.
She’s a naturopathic physician who teaches at the University of
Michigan. She says we have a collective knowledge about herbs that’s
thousands of years old. She says when you compare that to what
modern-day science knows about herbs, it’s not much of a comparison:

“In a sense we have just a tiny little window that science shows us, as
compared to the long use.”

Zick says we could learn a lot from these folks and the knowledge they
have, but not many researchers are studying people like the customers
here in Detroit:

“I think that we can actually learn what herbs they’re using a lot of and
what for. Because I think those are probably the ones that would be of
most interest. In particular, it’s a good question too if they’re using
them with conventional medications, it’s for safety issues. But also if
this is their primary health care for some of them, if it’s working, then
this is a very inexpensive way of providing health care for people who
might otherwise get none.”

Everyone we heard from in this story said the same thing. For us to
have good health, the old-school ways of healing can work hand-in-
hand with modern-day doctors and science. But the people who know
about the herbs are growing older and dying, and their knowledge is dying with them.

For the Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

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