Last month, I was lucky enough to speak with Curandera Atava Garcia Swiecicki, MA, RH (AHG), the founder and lead instructor of Ancestral Apothecary, School of Herbal, Folk and Indigenous Medicine—- a school which was born from Atava’s dream to create a more diverse community of herbalists and healers in the Bay Area. Atava has researched extensively the indigenous healing traditions of both her indigenous Mexican ancestors as well as her Polish Slavic ancestors. Her healing practice includes herbal medicine, flower essences, dream work, curanderismo, and deep genealogy coaching. She is an herbalist, healer, and teacher who is dedicated to remembering the healing traditions of her ancestors and supporting others to reconnect with their ancestral medicine, and has been studying and practicing the healing arts since 1992. Atava has been mentored by western herbalists, Mexican curanderas, and traditional indigenous healers. She is a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild.
You write how you are influenced ‘by your elders, ancestors, dreams, and plants.’ I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how those four things have factored into your healing journey.
First I’ll just acknowledge who my blood ancestors are. On my father’s side, we’re Polish. The. tribal people from there are Slavic. I know there’s a lot of different tribes, I don’t know specifically which ones, but I know my people there from the fields and the forest. On my mother’s side, there’s a couple of different lineages. Her father is from Mexico, from Guanajuato, but his father was from Taos, New Mexico. So we have Navajo or Diné ancestry as well as Mexican, a bloodline which can mean so many things. Many people in Mexico are meztizo, which means a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood. Through DNA testing, I found that we also have West African and Filipino. My mother’s mother’s people are from Romania, Hungary, and I don’t know as much about them, but I suspect some Romani.
I’ve spent a lot of time dedicated to remembering my relationship to my ancestors and also to their healing traditions. They’ve guided me. I’m 51 now, but I can look back when I was in my early 20s. I would have dreams that would lead me to certain places or to do certain things. I can look back now and say that that was the guidance of my ancestors. Lots of major transitions or passages in my life were guided by my dreams which I feel are portals for the ancestors to communicate. I just instinctively knew to follow my dreams. It wasn’t necessarily something cultivated in my family.
My dream practice began as a child when I remember having certain dreams that I literally can still remember today. From a very young age, I was interested in dreams and then as that path evolved, I was blessed to have human being guides who could support me to understand dreams from a more Western psychology perspective, but also a more indigenous perspective. I guess I’ll say “indigenous” in a kind of global sense.
I’ve just been lucky to have some incredible mentors and teachers in my life from a lot of different lineages, not necessarily my blood lineage.
I came to herbal medicine in my early 20s, when I really went to an herbal gathering and just felt like I came home. I think that was some sort of ancestral memory, which we all have with plants, because all of our people worked with plants, so that’s certainly not limited to any particular ancestry.
I had the fortunate blessing of working at an herb store in San Francisco and one day in walked Oaxacan curandera Doña Enriqueta Contreras. The moment she walked in, I just had a very visceral reaction I was like, “Oh I wanna study with her.” It was some sort of knowing, a memory.
So that was 20 years, literally 20 years ago in 1999. I began my journey as her life long student and through her met another woman named Estela Roman, who is still my teacher, from Cuernavaca.
And for readers who might not know what curanderismo is, would you share about what it means for you?
I’m writing a book about this! In Mexico, it’s not called “curanderismo,” it’s just called, traditional medicine, la medicina tradicional. It is the folk and indigenous medicine of Mexico, Central and Latin America, and the American Southwest. It is a blending of the indigenous practices that come from Mexico, from the many different tribal and cultural communities, and also the medicine practices from Spanish colonizers. It also has roots in traditions from Africa, from the people who were brought to the continent either as slaves or through some other form of contact.
Elena Avila, a famous curandera, wrote that curanderismo is “the three-headed serpent,” meaning it is a blend of practices indigenous to Mexico, Europe and Africa.
Traditionally, the way you become a curandero or curandera is you’re trained by either a teacher or a mentor or someone in your family. Maybe there’s a gift that’s in the family… what they call el don… don the gift.
It’s a continuum, but I will say the title of curandera is something that is bestowed upon you by your community. It’s a calling, it’s a lifestyle and it’s also something that you have to work hard with your teacher or your elder over time to prove yourself in the community. It’s a path of service.
I think I had a romanticized perspective of curanderismo. I always say my own training with Doña Enriqueta kicked me in the butt. It was hard work—she woke up in the morning before sunrise and was cleaning her house and going to the market and preparing for clients, and it was clients, clients, clients. Sometimes clients came in the middle of the night! And then she would go do the whole thing again the next day.
So I would say the heart of a curandera is about service.
Wherever it is, the medicine takes on a flavor of the community of the culture. It’s a different time now in the United States, a lot of Latinx people are recovering and reconnecting to their roots. It’s going to look different here than what it looked like fifty years ago in a small pueblo in Mexico. Here we’re not as supported by our communities, we live in capitalism, so there’s a lot of complexity to it.
I think it’s really beautiful the way that you’ve been able to identify your different ancestors and trace them back. I think we’re in a moment in history, socially and politically, where there’s a lot of people interested in healing and the healing practices, but the question comes up— how do we engage in other cultures’ healing practices? Is it ever okay, and how do we do so respectfully, how do we honor these differences?
It’s a very important question. I run a school, the Ancestral Apothecary, the school of herbal folk and indigenous medicine. I always envisioned it as a place for people from different cultures to come and share their cultural ancestors’ medicine with the community. I’ve been doing this for a long time but in the last couple of years, the interest is exploding. One of the most recent was about Caribbean medicine. People are looking to learn more about their ancestral medicine.
One of the main focuses of my master’s thesis was to explore deeply one of my ancestor lineages and trying to uncover what had been hidden or lost.
I thought I would be working with my Mexican ancestors, but Polish ancestors kept showing up literally— I was getting financial support from several scholarships from Polish sources, so it was like… maybe I should open up to this side of the family.
But anyway, I said yes, because I was getting all these signs to go forward and ended up doing a lot of research as well as two ancestral pilgrimages to Poland. A lot of what unfolded centered around the divine energy of Baba Yaga.
She’s powerful. And I think for all of us who have ancestry from Central and Eastern Europe, she is someone to become acquainted with. She’s not an easy energy. I was really curious about the way she looked, and how she flies in a mortar and a pestle. It seemed she must be an herbalist, right?
I started reading a lot of stories about her and just kind of immersed myself in her. In that part of the world, she has so much to do with the cycles of death and rebirth. She presides over those thresholds, a lot. Sometimes in the images of her, she’s pictured with [the mushroom] Amanita Muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom, the one that’s red with white spots on it, which is still used traditionally, I think in, in Siberia and by the Sami people of Scandinavia.
It is her season now, fall into the winter. Baba Yaga still works with me to this day. I try to work with her seasonally. If you have Polish or Russian roots, you have to go to the land if you can and have communion with the ancestors and the spirits there, of the plants and the trees. They will teach us. And that’s what I say a lot when I’m working with my students or my clients’ is this knowledge is in us, and it’s also in these places, so it’s just about remembering that relationship and being in a space open enough to remember because certainly… And let’s just say, with Poland, people were probably using certain plants with certain practices for thousands of years. It’s just a very small time that we had been kind of lost.
So I believe we can find our way back. A lot of that can come through dreams by just doing some intentional dream practices to incubate dreams. I think it’s very inspiring in terms of thinking of how we can connect to our ancestors, which is I think is something that is so easily forgotten right now with the world. Before I even started studying herbalism at all, it felt very like that wasn’t ever in my mind.
I’m wondering if you have advice for people interested in healing and their ancestors.
I will say up front, is that it is possible to connect and it is possible to heal even when there’s been a break or trauma or displacement or genocide. And I say this only because I’ve seen it in the work, my work and my cohort, my colleagues, my students, my clients, it always amazes me so I… I also will say it’s hard, it can be really hard work because most of us didn’t disconnect just because we felt like it. There are usually multiple traumas, whether of social trauma, such as slavery or genocide, of native people in this continent or murder or people in the Holocaust, there’s that level of trauma, but then there’s family trauma like alcoholism or incest or murder.
I recommend that people find support and mentorship. I would say our ancestors were tribal and communal by nature. That’s part of the indigenous mind: I’m not this individual on my own, I’m connected to the community.
So whether it’s sitting and praying or talking, there are many ways to connect. A teaching I received from my mentors and elders is to start by making an offering. It could be a tree, but I say it also could be the ocean or water. Trees have a particular really good energy for this because it makes us remember our family tree. Trees have roots, so we’re trying to ask for roots. An offering might be a prayer or a song or if you know a cultural offering. For example, in Poland, a traditional offering might be bread and salt. Some cultures, it’s honey or wine or tobacco.
I make an offering, saying a prayer and I ask those ancestors to come and show up and help. And I would say in a little advice is maybe ask specifically for the healthy ancestors and the good ancestors. We have a lot of ancestors and once we start to open to the spirit world without discernment anyone or anything can come through. Not that we can’t work with or honor the ones who may have done bad things in their life, but we might not want to be calling on them.
The Western mind might think: all I’m doing is putting this offering down on the ground and saying this prayer, can this really open the doorway to my ancestors? But again that’s something that every time I’ve done it myself, or guided someone to do that, it opens up this doorway.
Just the act of making an offering and saying the prayer: things start to happen. And then the other thing I tell people is, once you do that, start tracking what starts to happen with what shows up in your life: synchronicity, dreams, etc. You start learning how it weaves all together into a story.
The other thing I do want to say since I am working on this for this talk I’m giving in a couple of weeks is to try to engage with your ancestral roots. Whether it’s herbs, music, or recipes, just immerse yourself and try something that you know they related to in some way.
Some people say, “Oh I’m white and I know I’m just this mutt. And first of all “white” is not a culture. All people with white skin, are not the same. I’m mixed race, but I’m very white-presenting.
I think that’s a really good reminder, especially when I think there can be fear or hesitation in seeking different kinds of healing practices. I think it’s a great reminder for people that they can be empowered to trace their ancestry and lineage and be curious. Is there anything else you would want readers to know about either your healing practices or the Ancestral Apothecary?
I would just say the first thing is to make a practice of writing down your dreams in the morning, so have a dream journal near your bed. The way I look at it, it’s our every night, we have this chance to explore different realities, to receive guidance, to connect with ancestors. I feel like dreams are a very untapped resource for a lot of people. Sometimes dreams are very sacred and so you wouldn’t want to share them with everybody. And one thing I’ve been taught is you may share some of the dream… but just keep a little piece for yourself.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and for sharing all your wisdom!