Under the shadow of snow-capped mountains and at the Northern tip of the sparkling Howe Sound waters lies Squamish, home to Sḵwálwen Botanicals. This spectacular natural region of the Pacific Northwest is where Squamish Nation member Leigh Joseph, connected science with her ancestral heritage to create a collection of sustainable skincare and home products.
Joseph, who also goes by her ancestral name of Styawat, grew up in the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation. Her curiosity about her culture and food started early when, as a young girl, she visited her family in Snuneymuxw, (Nanaimo First Nations) on Vancouver Island. Her memories of tasting fresh produce, seeing Indigenous medicines in jars on the counter, and lessons about spiritual protection stayed with her. She also learned about the scars carried by her father’s parents who both attended residential schools. These early family memories and time spent learning from elders in her community planted the seeds for her deep appreciation of nature. In turn, that became a lifelong passion to share the understanding of food and culture with the rest of the world.
After earning a Master’s degree in science from the University of Victoria, Joseph launched her first collection, then called The Wild Botanicals, in 2017. Her background as an ethnobotanist helped her dive deeper into how the medicinal compounds in the local plants her ancestors cherished could be maximized in skincare. (The field of ethnobotany studies the interrelationships between people and plants.) What a brilliant business for a young scientist whose passion for plants was rooted in lessons from her family and elders.
For example, the rose petals Joseph collects for her Kalkáy (call-kay) wild rose products - facial oil to bath salts - are rich in antioxidants known to help calm the skin and reduce redness while uplifting the senses with a gentle, aromatic scent. “Wild rose reminds us to maintain a sustainable relationship with our natural environment,” says Joseph. She was taught to always leave two petals on each rose flower she harvests from. This ensures that pollinators still have somewhere to land, and that the flower can be pollinated and develop into a rosehip, the fruit of the wild rose plant. Not only are rosehips a skincare ingredient, they are also a nutritious food for animals and birds. Following sustainable harvest practices ensures that the plant can benefit all lifeforms that interact with it.
Joseph developed formulas by pairing healing plants with top quality oils, clays and plant butters. Some of the plant foods and medicines are harvested in local forests, estuaries (water passages), and subalpine meadows - essential ingredients in a skincare collection that is free from harsh chemicals, phthalates, parabens, synthetic fragrances and colours. Joseph harvests ingredients sustainably and respectfully, ensuring she leaves enough behind to help ensure regeneration. Once harvested (based on ancient traditions) the plants are hand processed - bark is scraped, plants are cleaned and hung to dry or infused in oils. To meet demand, she also sources raw materials for her products from suppliers such as plant nurseries. These partnerships enable the business to grow while ensuring the ingredients are sustainable.
Joseph rebranded her company as Sḵwálwen (skwall-win) Botanicals two years after launching. “Sḵwálwen translates roughly to “heart” or “essence of being” in the Squamish language,” she says. “This name honours the inspiration behind the business: building connections to the land through working with plants in a way that feeds one’s heart and spirit.”
Changing the name to one that celebrates Joseph’s Squamish culture was a leap of faith. She wondered if the language would be a barrier for some, but discovered that customers ~ both Indigenous and non-indigenous ~ appreciated the link between the name of the brand and the ancestral knowledge that goes into the plant-based products. The name became a powerful guiding light for the business, and aligned with her aim of contributing to cultural resurgence.
Sḵwálwen Botanical’s story is more than an effective skin cream in a sweetly designed package crafted by a small local business. Sḵwálwen’s mission is to unite ancestral traditions with modern beauty rituals, empowering people to connect to themselves and the natural world. The brand also draws awareness to sustainable production processes and packaging, with insight about our land’s heritage and reconciliation efforts. In addition, Joseph is a PhD candidate in the field of ethnobotany where her research examines the link between healing and the renewal of indigenous plant knowledge and practices. She is exploring ways that traditional foods and medicines, along with culturally relevant interventions, may prevent and manage Type 2 diabetes in Canadian indigenous communities.
More personally, Joseph aims to help shift the cultural narrative of Indigenous women from one of trauma to resilience. Through Sḵwálwen’s storytelling, imagery, and connection to the land, she is helping to elevate Indigenous perspectives and lives - an inspiration for her community and two children.
Sḵwálwen Botanicals are available at skwalwen.com and select Sḵwálwen products can also be found in 40+ retail locations across Canada.