In Western cultures, people go to a pharmacy for medicine. But in far flung places around the world—the Amazon, Belize, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea—natives depend upon village healers and shamans for medicinal substances. Amy Greeson, a pharmacist and educator, is working to bring the two together. “My team and I have begun to realize, that through our global expeditions, we were acquiring invaluable knowledge about indigenous cultures and people,” Greeson said. “We were determined to tell their stories. And to work to preserve them. And, finally, to inspire a new generation.”
Amy and her non profit organization, Healing Seekers, have joined forces with filmmaker and environmentalist Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, to protect and preserve the environment and indigenous cultures. “Local healers working with various plants [create] a true testament about how people use what naturally exists in their surroundings,” said Celine. “This learning and testament must be preserved].” We met with Amy to talk about her many experiences traveling to all parts of the globe.
Can you tell us about one of your earliest encounters with indigenous peoples?
One day, while I was doing my rounds as a pharmacist in Kotzebue, Alaska, I went into a lady’s room to review her medication chart. She was Alaskan. And I didn’t speak her language. So she motioned for me to sit down and then to pull the drawer out beside her bed. Inside the drawer was a single photo. It was a photo of this lady, in her late 80′s, approximately five feet tall and petite. She had a rifle in her left hand and a cigarette in her right hand, and had raised her right foot high enough to rest on the side of a dead polar bear.
When a polar bear comes into a village, it will stalk a human being…so it becomes imperative to kill the bear quickly if the village fears that a child might be killed. She held up one finger, and told me that she had killed it with one shot! With indigenous cultures, and with people of another language, one begins to learn how to interpret silence and gestures as the language. She was silent, but eloquent.
Amy, what would you say makes your work unique?
My life is focused on one point. Virtually all my working life I have been getting ready for the next expedition. The lady with the rifle was a wonderful memory of my very first expedition. She had information that she wanted to convey—information about being five feet tall and handling a rifle, and about her proud history as a bear slayer. And she did it without words! We come to know each other as people even though our languages and lives could not be more different. My work is informed by the connections I make. I can develop a heart connection with fellow healers, even without a language in common. I formed a bond with a healer in Madagascar, gazing, communicating silently. It was as though I was part of her family.
Talk about your relationship with Celine Cousteau
Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, and I have formed a close connection. Our joint missions are to protect and preserve environments and indigenous cultures before they are lost. Celine and her videographer from her non-profit, CauseCentric Productions, joined us on our expedition to Papua New Guinea.
Celine created a video of our work in PNG. It is only the second nonprofit she has supported as such. Papua New Guinea is beset by destruction in the name of “development.” We talk to the people and say, it’s possible to resist and keep your way of life intact. In Papua New Guinea we have a chance to give back to the indigenous culture, and also to bring awareness to the world about its cultural riches. I had a conversation with the PNG elders, asking them what they most wanted and what we could bring to them. Their answer was unexpected. They said, “We want our kids to learn.” Now that is a goal we may be able to address.”
Amy, you have had unusual spiritual experiences. Can you share your faith background?
My spiritual path is essentially Christian. My family’s beliefs may have prepared me for other faiths – my grandmother, a member of the Church of Christ, spoke in tongues like the early Christians. I am as comfortable talking with a South American shaman as with a pastor in a local church. Among the practices I have encountered is the belief in spirit possession. I have also met people who believe in the spirits of nature—trees, stones, plants. Gandhi said it best: the principles of all religious faiths are the same at the core. I believe that what matters is that one has a spiritual practice; the name doesn’t matter. My life’s path is indeed spiritual, to help others understand that the gifts of the wild save lives.
Do some of the drugs we use today come from nature?
The greatest percentage of commonly used antibiotics has its origins in nature: penicillin, amoxicillin, vancomycin, and even over the counter triple antibiotic creams. Our high blood pressure drugs: captopril, lisinopril, enalopril; our organ transplant meds like cyclosporin; and blood thinners like coumadin/warfarin; anti-diabetic meds like metformin and Byetta—all have their origin in nature. Every day, I see people with horrific diseases. I dispense medications. But we still need more—more medications to cure or eradicate specific diseases. I believe that every medication we need may be out there. We merely have to discover it.
Do you see potential for discovering new medications in these areas?
In highly biodiverse areas of the world there is enormous competition for a species to survive. Competition forces species to create stronger defensive mechanisms to ensure survival. Certain species have created powerful chemicals—and I believe that they can fight diseases like cancer and AIDS.
How do you approach each expedition?
Most writers who investigate cultures across the globe tend to focus on one tribe, one village. I am more interested in diversity and documentation. For each expedition I have a created a collection of videos, logs, and biological specimens which have been converted into medications—this makes my work unique.
What is integrative medicine?
The beauty of integrative medicine is that it combines the best of all worlds of medicine. Integrative medicine is already a strong part of our health care today. An example: The yew tree, once considered without commercial value, routinely cut down, ended up saving the lives of millions of women. Pharmacologists and scientists found that its bark was a powerful anti-cancer agent. Suddenly, the yew had value. But in order to respond to the demand for women with cancer alone, hundreds of thousands of trees would have to be cut down. The tree would become extinct. Scientists were compelled to take the blueprint of the Pacific Yew and create a synthetic pharmaceutical compound.
But the discoveries didn’t end there. Scientists eventually realized that it wasn’t simply the bark of the tree that created this powerful anti-cancer compound. It was a symbiotic relationship between a microbe (invisible to the naked eye) and the bark. Scientists working with both the bark and the microbe created the compound that went on to help battle cancer for millions of people.
Tell us about your expedition to the Amazon
There is a peace in the Amazon that is difficult to describe. A purity. And there are places much deeper, much more remote to explore. The first time I went to the Amazon, I was absolutely mesmerized. The sounds, the vibrant colors, and lush tropical rain forests…they consumed me. I was like a child, trying hard to absorb it all and not miss anything. Everything was exciting and the adrenaline just kept coming in surges. Seeing a blue morpho butterfly, a macaw, monkeys, or the most brilliant flower took my breath away.
I stayed wide-open, receptive. Sometimes the only way I could respond was with tears. As I left to return to civilization, I became deeply saddened. I felt I was leaving a part of my soul behind. There is such an inexplicable balance, every living entity is in harmony. All you have to do is breathe to be connected to this environment. You become a part of the larger picture, and it becomes a part of you. I believe that the more people understand the gifts of wild nature, and their own intimate connection to nature, they will change their behaviors and cease destroying the wild places.
What message do you want to send to the world?
The more I see, the more I explore, the more I learn, and the less I understand…I realize that we have not even begun to touch the possibilities of our potential to heal. We can never grasp all that there is, but together we can certainly make huge strides. The important thing is to never stop searching, exploring, discovering, and never ever think that we know all that there is to know about anything…even ourselves. For those who wish to learn more about Amy Greeson, Healing Seekers, their expeditions and the videos, visit their home page.
This article was originally posted in Woman Around Town.