By Stephanie Morningstar
Artwork by Zeena Salam
I wish I could say that I come from a long line of badass Onkwehonwe womxn, (which I do), but the image that statement evokes may be misleading in that there’s no legacy of deeply-held cultural knowledge in our story. In fact, our familial story has many fractures and deleted bits from the pervasive and seemingly universal interruption of colonization. There’s a lineage of cultural experience, but they’re dysfunctional experiences unique to Indigenous people- residential school, the 60’s scoop, loss of language and knowledge- experiences that alienated my family from our birthrights as Haudenosaunee. Those fractures informed my expression of healing, land, and body as a Haudenosaunee womxn in ways that are only now beginning to manifest and speak deeply to the resilience of my people. I want to share that resilience in my own story of deep healing that started where my people started- Sky World, and how that healing informs my life and connection to my ancestors and land today.
Sky World is all around us and within us, as we are all made of stars. It’s where our ancestors come from, where Awenha’i (Sky Woman) comes from, where she fell from. Awenha’i brought medicines and food when she came from Sky World. The first of these fruits was niyohontéhsha’ (Fragaria vesca/wild strawberry), known as the “Big Medicine” because of its powerful healing properties- enough to warrant its own ceremony, enough to welcome the beloved dead as they walk the pathway along the Milky Way, lined with niyohontéhsha’, back to Sky World.
The other reason I love the name “Sky World” is a little more personal. My mother’s parents lived far from the reserve our family comes from (Six Nations), having emigrated to the United States (Buffalo, NY) in the mid-1940s. My family didn’t have the connection to “traditional” Haudenosaunee culture, so there aren’t stories of aunties teaching me beading and dancing at the longhouse. In fact, they saw traditional culture as a backwards, mysterious, and dark history that we were told not to look into too deeply. My mom and aunties may not have taught me how to bead or make corn soup, but they did however teach me how to laugh- and survive.
My family wasn’t raised “traditional Longhouse,” because of the legacy of harm of the residential school system. My mother’s father attended the residential school known as “The Mush Hole” in Brantford, ON, and his experience there, along with the looming threat of the ‘60s scoop, informed my understanding of my identity in that he discouraged connections to our Indigeneity out of a necessity for survival. Because of this legacy, my family had to create other traditions to express our spiritual connection to each other and the land.
One of my favourite ways to spend time with my mother when she was still here on Turtle Island was to climb the one-story set of steps up to the top of a stone building at a nearby state park and Star Watch. We lovingly call this place the “Stone Tower,” because, well, it was stone, and a tower. One of the traditions we created was to designate the space of the Stone Tower as sacred, a place for rites of passage like blessing new babies and honouring the women of my family before transitions, and most of all, Star Watching.
It was my mother who taught me how to Star Watch and sparked my passion for learning about Sky World. Star Watching is a practice in patience and presence- the trick was to soften your focus just enough to let the periphery of the sky encompass your vision, and scan back and forth searching for anything that seemed to move, shine brightly, blink, or change colour. I was around 10 years old when my mother started becoming more active in her passion of exploring the possibilities of the universe and questioning the reality we are conditioned to believe. That curiosity and questioning led me down my own garden path as an herbalist/
I’m a western trained herbalist and trained a bit with traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe medicine helpers, experiences that helped me understand more about myself and medicine ways than I can ever begin to share. When I decided to start my own practice as an herbalist, I was indecisive at first about what to name my apothecary. I come to this name, Sky World Apothecary, the product of a childhood that was filled with what others might consider abnormal or strange, but to me was a vector for mystery and connection to something larger than myself.
As I have grown more familiar with my culture I began to recognize my own passion for inquiry, especially regarding Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of which Star Knowledge is a facet. When I heard the Sky Woman story, the Haudenosaunee creation story, I knew I had to pull that thread and see what emerged. I wanted to honour my mother’s memory when naming this new path in life, making medicine for those still here with us, while honouring my ancestors in the Sky World.
Ultimately, Sky World Apothecary finally came to me after a long day of hiking and learning and picking medicines with some fellow herbalists. I came home sore, sunburnt, and bug-bitten, full of bliss and scratches on my legs. As I lay in bed I felt something click open in my heart centre, something activating inside me. It felt pink and soft and vibrant. As I lay there, drifting down to sleep, I saw nothing but strawberries. Big Medicine from Sky World. I felt the call to honour my ancestors and my dream of healing people through (re)connection to the land started to grow.
I recently stepped into the role of the Co-Executive Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), a new organization dedicated to advancing land and food sovereignty for BIPOC folks in the North-Eastern region of the U.S. I knew this was my dream position when I read the Vision statement: “Working to advance land sovereignty in the northeast region through permanent, secure land tenure for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers and land stewards who use the land in a sacred manner that honors our ancestors dreams — for regenerative farming, sustainable human habitat, ceremony, native ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation.” Win!
NEFOC’s work is essential not only because our vision is dedicated to advancing land sovereignty, but because it’s doing it through a healing lens. One of the most insidious forms of colonization is the manifestation of lateral violence. We know the project of colonization is successful when the colonizers no longer have to expend energy to disrupt our relationships to each other and the land — when we do it to ourselves. This “divide and conquer” piece of the colonial project is exactly what we aim to collectively heal. Both Sky World Apothecary and NEFOC’s vision embody this at their cores. NEFOC is dedicated to repairing relationships with the Indigenous communities of the Northeast. Our goal as an organization is to restore right relationship to each other and the land, starting with listening to Indigenous leaders and people to hear and co-conspire with each nation on how to establish sovereignty.
I often go back to a statement made by Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal elder and activist from Queensland, Australia, who says it way better than I ever could: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to establish solidarity as BIPOC earth workers and land stewards. This work isn’t about centering any one way of being, doing, and knowing. It’s about picking up our universal responsibilities as Indigenous people (and we are all Indigenous to somewhere) to steward the land as a relative, to remember our ancestors’ dreams and pick up our roles as future ancestors, and to do this, not just for the next seven generations, but for all generations to come. I want to acknowledge the work of those who have come before us and paved the way for what may seem like a fairly idealistic and radical concept: advancing sovereignty and transforming the concept of “ownership” of land to a collective agreement to pick up our responsibilities to the land as a relative requiring respect and careful, intentional, mindful, and sustainable stewardship so that all Faces to Come have equitable access to home, health, and happiness. To me, that is what achieving healing looks like.
Stephanie Morningstar (She/Her) OnΛyota’a:ka – Oneida, Turtle clan, Lotinosho:ni/Haudenosaunee & German/English ancestral lineages. Herbalist, scholar, student, and Earth Worker dedicated to decolonization and liberation. She is the founder of Sky World Apothecary & Farm, serves as a Leadership Council member for the New England Women’s Herbal Conference and the International Herb Symposium, and is the Co-Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust.
Zeena is currently living in her home town Najaf, Iraq. She is studying accounting at the University of Kofa along with pursuing an art career on the side. She enjoys painting and drawing pieces that relate to Arabian culture, nature, and landscapes.