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  • Holistic Healing in the Ozarks: The Loves and Life’s Work of Sasha Daucus

    A woman in blue tank top and black and blue patterned skirt smiles under a tent decorated with plants and photos of plants.

    Sasha Daucus in the Herbalism tent at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    Photo by Helen Zhang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Sasha Daucus made her home in the Herbalism tent at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but never thought she would be an herbalist—or a midwife for that matter. In 1981, she was studying to be a translator when she took a trip to visit her sister in the Ozarks. She liked it so much that she decided to stay. It felt spontaneous, but it wasn’t wholly out of character. Daucus loved to hike and inherited a love of plants from her father. Then she met a local midwife, they fell in love and moved in together, and she has never left.

    “I was kind of an accidental homesteader,” she explained. “It wasn’t an, ‘Oh I want to live in the Ozarks.’ It was just one of those times in life where one thing led to another. And then, there I was in the Ozarks in the midwifery business, and I thought, ‘Wow, how am I going to contribute to this?’”

    She turned to her love of plants.

    “At that time, there was a really active back-to-the-land movement in the Ozarks, and in the ’80s, herbalism was something in the forefront of that.” So, Daucus gathered as many books on the subject as she could (which, at that time, wasn’t very many) and began to teach herself the different uses for the plants around her.

    “I just have an enormous love for natural habitats,” she described. “I can see a plant that will interest me and come back to it years later—like how some people know to go to this store because it has these things. To me, that’s how I see the habitats around me.”

    Under a wooden structure with a sign that reads Teaching Garden, a woman speaks with a small group of people seated on benches.
    Sasha Daucus speaks with Festival visitors in the Teaching Garden.
    Photo by Helen Zhang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    She ended up focusing on Ayurveda, a form of traditional Indian medicine that classifies plants into five elements: air, fire, water, earth, and ether/space. Practitioners use herbs to balance these elements within a person, and the process helps to heal them. If you’re wondering why Daucus practices Indian medicine in rural America, it’s because traditions in Western herbalism were disrupted.

    “There used to be an incredible herbal tradition in the West, and during the Enlightenment, during the time of the witch burnings, that was destroyed because herbalism was associated with witchcraft. You also might have heard of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, so all of these texts that recorded this incredible tradition of Western herbal healing were destroyed.” Remnants of these teachings remain in Arabic records, but that they are just that—remnants.

    A lack of history greatly impacted the practice of herbalism in the West and did nothing to help with biases against holistic care.

    “What we call conventional medicine is one brand of medicine, and it has a name: allopathy,” Daucus explained. “There was a time in the United States when there were many different branches of medicine, and all of these were credible. But there was competition about who would dominate that profession, and allopathy won.” After that, the medical establishment discredited and pushed to the fringes other forms of healing.

    If we look past this relatively recent view of holistic medicine as something untrustworthy, the actual tenants of the practice are revealed as humane in nature. Daucus described how she regards a client as a “person rather than the disease.” This perspective shifts the way patients are cared for because it’s not just about curing an illness—it’s about changing the conditions that led to that illness in the first place.

    “Let’s say you have a pond that’s not doing well,” she analogized. “You could dump a chemical into it, and you could kill the algae, but it’s going to have some other impacts. Now the pond is having some trouble with the fish or the turtles. What are you going to do now?”

    Her point isn’t that medication is wrong, but she wants to make people aware that there are other options. The effects may be less dramatic, and they may take longer, but alternatives can work just as well by treating the system as a whole.

    “What is happening to this pond that leads to an overgrowth of algae? Oh look, we have some laundry runoff. Let’s redirect that somewhere else and see if that will help.”

    This difference in approach is what Daucus believes separates holistic care and allopathy. “With allopathy, there’s the assumption that something’s wrong, that something is broken, and it needs to be fixed—which is super appropriate in some circumstances. It’s not appropriate in others—for instance, pregnancy. There’s nothing wrong, nothing is broken, and nothing needs to be fixed. You are dealing with a natural process, and you need to support that process.”

    A man kneels on the ground, hugging the enlarged belly of a pregant snowwoman. A cardboard signs leaning against it reads Mau’s at Home Delivery Service.
    Daucus’s partner, Mau Blossom, outside their practice.
    Photo courtesy of Sasha Daucus
    Two women pose sitting on the ground, embracing. Flowers bloom behind them.
    Sasha Daucus and Mau Blossom
    Photo courtesy of Sasha Daucus
    In a wood-paneled room, five people attend to a pregnant woman on a bed.
    Daucus and her partner assist in the birth of her niece, Jesse.
    Photo courtesy of Sasha Daucus

    In the United States, midwives have been the target of anti-natural healing bias and sexism. For much of the twentieth century, states across the country outlawed midwives, something Daucus and her partner experienced firsthand.

    “Our practice was illegal in the ’80s. My partner was trained as a nurse, but she put her license on hold and practiced as a lay midwife. Eventually she was arrested for practicing medicine without a license, and her case was dismissed—partly because no one wanted to try it. Nobody really wanted to take away a midwife who was delivering babies in one of the poorest counties in the United States. The court case was put off, and put off, and put off, until finally it was dismissed on a technicality that it had been put off for too long.”

    Both women felt that this arrest was a drastic response by the medical institutions in their area, especially because their business was small—just the two of them—and it had existed for a long time.

    “We did home birth. She had been doing it for ten years when I met her, and we did it for another ten years.” But as her partner grew older, being on call began to lack appeal. “And the families were growing up, and they wanted somebody who could help them with their colds or their yeast infections, things like that.” They began to transition out of midwifery practice.

    They continued practicing together until Daucus’s partner passed away. Now, Daucus focuses much of her time on bringing awareness of holistic medicine to others.

    “My parents were both teachers, and I did a lot of teaching about herbal plants and diet. I started to build a niche for myself in knowing which plants in the Ozarks were useful and teaching people how to make medicine out of the herbs.”

    Reflecting on her career, Daucus believes that allopathy can learn a thing or two from the approach taken by holistic medicine: “I think in medicine we would really benefit from understanding that whenever you’re dealing with conventional medicines, you’re dealing with a lot of side effects. Very often there’s not enough time or interest to think about why you’re in that situation. Herbalism can be, and often is, a slower practice that can require some greater self-awareness and some greater responsibility. ‘Why is this happening? What am I doing in my life that’s throwing my ecology off?’

    “I would rather that my ecology be like a very healthy lake than like a pond that had aquacide put into it.”

    Sasha isn’t looking to turn the hostility she faced from the medical system back on itself. Instead, she wants everyone to make their own, fully informed decisions without facing resistance.

    “In general, what I’ve learned is that some people are open to natural healing, and some people aren’t. That’s a very personal choice, and I don’t have any need to talk somebody out of things. If people are interested in natural healing, I want those resources to be there, and I want to be a resource for them.”

    Under a wooden structure with a sign that reads Teaching Garden, a woman speaks with a small group of people seated on benches.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Eileen Jones is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is studying creative writing and American studies at Geoge Washington University.

    Sasha Daucus’s participation in the Folklife Festival was supported by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool.

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