North America’s Ancient Herbal

Native American and First Nation healers identified many useful herbs, often brewed into decoctions, tonics, and infusions. Anthropologists have discovered vessels with herbal residues dating back 1000 years.

In recent years wild harvesting has regained favor with several brands offering organic herbals that have proven popular in natural food stores and holistic pharmacies. Herbals represent about 2 percent of the market in North America, but 80+ percent in South America and 25 percent in Europe, according to Bob Krul, a veteran tea importer and wholesaler in Canada.

There is nothing mystical in these preparations. In many instances Native American and First Nation women performed the task of a Chinese herbalist, harvesting and mixing and preparing forest fare to enhance the everyday lives of the tribe.

Medicine elders had a higher calling. These were spiritual leaders who interacted with the spirit world for the benefit of the community. This sometimes meant treating disease but included healing the psyche, mediating disputes and interpreting acts of nature. The term “medicine man” is widely misperceived. Though well-schooled in the healing arts, they were not viewed as possessing supernatural powers. Medicine is the power to heal through prayer and ceremony and spiritual practice that blends treatments like herbal decoctions with faith.

WTN141020_ART_Algonquin_NativeTeasAlgonquin Tea Company is a Canadian brand launched in 1996 that is now sold in more than 600 stores in both the US and Canada. The company grew sales by 12 percent last year according to Krul, a partner in the venture. The company’s line of condition-specific herbals includes practical applications like Homestead Blend, a cold and flu soother; Sweetfern Tonic, a lymph and blood cleanser; and Lucid Dream Tea, to enhance dream recall. Well-being blends include Peace Tea for security, tranquility and sleep and Sacred Blend for vision, communion, and clarity.

Special care is taken in wild crafting roots, berries, nuts, flower petals and leaves of plants such as Labrador leaf, yellow dock, red clover, echinacea, white pine, and sage.

Kim Elkington and Steve Martyn at Algonquin take from each plant only what a deer would eat. Martyn often travels by canoe, plucking healthy species on a schedule that is determined in part by the plant. A prayer of thanks is offered at each stop.

The plant’s appearance and weather conditions are primary considerations. “A prolonged dry spell may lead us to pass on harvesting in an area the entire season,” explains Elkington.

“An ethically wild harvested plant is a much more labor intensive process. The health of the plant is a primary consideration, as it impacts the energetics and medicinal qualities, because the plants are less bruised, hold more medicinal oils, and are rich in flavor,” she said.

Only plants from the Algonquin bioregion are harvested. All are certified organic under the USDA and Canadian organic programs. Ingredients include anise hyssop; sweet gale (myricia gale), which grows along moving rivers; and traditional healing herbs such as astragalus, angelica and ginseng.

Aberdeen, South Dakota is the home of Native American Tea Company, a firm that offers six flavors of herbal tea along with traditional black and green teas. The firm ships to 15 countries and is on the cafeteria menu at The Smithsonian, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The company projects sales of $500,000 in 2014 and recently closed a deal with United Natural Foods, Inc. a major food supplier and regional gaming giant Ho-Chunk.

The company was founded in 1987 by Joseph Vallie and his family who are members of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe. Blends include Teepee Dreams, a mix of valerian root and chamomile and peppermint and “Good Medicine Tea” a blend of wood betony, eucalyptus and spearmint. Vice president of sales and marketing Joe Moore told the Aberdeen News the firm was acquired in 2007 by Aberdeen businessman Tom Aman.

“The market is expanding all the time. It’s not unrealistic to think that tea could be the new coffee in America. A lot has been said and written about the health benefits of certain types of tea, like green tea, but virtually all tea has been gaining in popularity,” Moore told the newspaper.

Consumers are “pulling the cords for more natural, herbal, local, fresh and seasonal offerings that are closer to home and yet taste clean, fresh and wild. This trend is not going to go away,” said Krul.
“I see this as the back bone to the tea/tisane industry in North America with joint development in existing herbal markets in South America, EU and Africa. Already, the growth of yerba mate and Rooibos can claim success in promoting both taste and health against green and black teas,” he said.

“The coming together of the world tea/tisane market will open up opportunities for our aboriginal harvesters who know the land and the remedial impacts of wild herbs used for centuries around the world. Combined with the growth of nutraceuticals the use of common plants like dandelions and thistles to help cleanse and improve our internal organs, is leading the medical health industry to visit the natural benefits of wild picked plants,” said Krul.


Native American Owned Tea Companies
Red Lake Nation Foods is headquartered in Red Lake, Minn. The company is owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. Proceeds benefit the tribe’s 9,600 members living on the 850,000 acres that comprise the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Northwest Minnesota.

The Ojibwa Tea of Life headquartered in Denver, Colo., is a provider of sacraments for the Native American Church. Its four-herb Essiac is blended fresh to order and distributed online and through wholesalers.

Click this link for a list of herbal remedies used by many different tribes.

Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.