Melissa Daniels can now add small business owner to her list of careers, alongside public health nurse and lawyer.
Daniels acknowledged she "likes a challenge." From the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, her latest endeavour is a recently launched skincare business based in her Fort Smith home.
The venture is named Naidié Nezų – a Dene reference to good medicine.
"Our traditional Dene concept, with respect to medicine, has more to do with medicine from the land," Daniels said, adding her business name and methods of harvesting and sourcing ingredients reflect this.
"Nezų is a fun word in Dene. It means nice, it means good. When we like something we're like, 'Nezų,'" she laughed.
Daniels and friends harvest wild ingredients including chaga and spruce gum.
"Any time I pick a medicine I'm putting down tobacco, I'm giving thanks," said Daniels, outlining what she said were good harvesting practices learned from her family and community Elders. "And so I know that the medicines I've been able to collect have a really good spirit."
These ingredients are fused with others from Indigenous collectives around the world, such as cocoa and shea butter. Products include soaps, body butters, and facial moisturizers. Each product is labelled "made in Denendeh."
Spruce gum, found in many of the products, is used traditionally on wounds and in salves. Daniels said she is trying to blend her traditional health knowledge with what she's learning about cosmetic sciences.
Daniels' products include locally harvested ingredients paired with those from elsewhere. Photo: Naidié Nezų
Daniels worked as a public health nurse in the North, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother. In that job, she said, she saw how the environment affected the health of the people. This motivated her to pursue law so she could help protect the Athabaska Chipweyan First Nation homelands from degradation.
Having previously been based in Victoria, Daniels was shocked when she returned home and discovered how difficult it was to access organic products she readily found in British Columbia.
"I wanted to figure out a way to make a beautiful organic product that incorporates our Dene ancestral knowledge about botanicals, and plants, and things like that, and present it in a unique way so we could still incorporate our medicines into our everyday lives," she said.
Daniels is also running workshops to help people create their own products. She said her company will donate 10 percent of proceeds to Indigenous grassroots land-based initiatives, starting with the Łutselkʼe Women's Group hide tanning camp.
For now, Daniels is making her products at home. She hopes one day to open a Fort Smith location for her products, classes, and workshops.
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.