It’s been a wild year for Dene entrepreneur Melissa Daniels since starting her own business at the beginning of 2020.
Combining Dene botanical knowledge and her background as a public health nurse, she harvests Indigenous plants and medicines to create skincare products, such as body butter made with spruce gum for babies or a hand balm featuring blue chamomile flowers.
“I started to spend a lot more time on the land and working to develop more of an understanding of our botanical medicines,” she says, “and how our Elders have applied certain things topically, or ingested, in order to maintain an optimal level of well-being before Western medicine became so normalized.
“I wanted to develop more of an understanding of how I could marry these traditional Dene botanical concepts with a more modern approach to chemistry.”
Daniels’ work is informed by spending time on the land with Elders and other community members. For example, when she makes a chaga body butter, she approaches it knowing that Dene peoples have always ingested chaga as a tea, so water is needed to extract the medicine.
For her, creating these products is a way of practising her rights as an Indigenous woman while helping to revitalize and preserve Dene botanical knowledge.
“I don’t want to say we’ve lost a lot of teachings, but they’ve been sort-of kept underground for a lot of different reasons … colonization being the primary one,” she says.
There’s a big appetite for natural products across the North, Daniels adds, especially among those who may not be able go into the bush and harvest for themselves. Part of Naidié Nezų’s aim as a business is to help fill those gaps in access to healthy, natural products.
Yet Daniels takes care to stress she has never been in this for the money.
Throughout the year, she travelled to communities to teach others how to harvest medicines and make products. This summer, she held a week-long workshop for community members in Łútsël K’é.
The goal, Daniels says, is to put herself out of business.
“It’s not feasible, economically or otherwise, for me to make soap for everyone, and teaching other people how to do this is exactly what I want to be doing,” she explains.
“It helps empower the people to make these things for themselves, and to… rebuild these land-based relationships, which I think is very, very important.”
Not long after starting Naidié Nezų, Daniels was chosen to be part of the inaugural Fireweed Fellowship, a 10-month accelerator program for Indigenous women and two-spirit entrepreneurs across Canada.
It’s the first national accelerator program of its kind run by Indigenous people, focused on building new business models through a decolonized lens.
Daniels calls it “an honour to be chosen.”
“The work that’s going to come out of our cohort, it’s going to be used by and appreciated by so many Indigenous entrepreneurs, because I’ve tried looking for decolonized models of business, and there’s nothing,” she says.
“It’s beautiful to be a part of building and growing something like this… not just for myself, but for future entrepreneurs that are going to be able to later like look at it and refine it.”
Daniels says she gives 10 percent of Naidié Nezų’s profits to Indigenous land-based initiatives; this year, those proceeds were given to a hide tanning camp in Łútsël K’é run by a local women’s group.
For the materials she doesn’t harvest herself, such as shea and cocoa butter, she sources products that are organic and fair trade.
“Things like that are extremely important to me: to do things in a good way, to make sure that I’m ethically harvesting and teaching people how to ethically harvest, and that we’re constantly giving back and supporting under-represented people and people who’ve been traditionally oppressed by economic models, like Indigenous people, Black people, people like that,” Daniels says.
Throughout the past year her business has even grown internationally. She estimates about 20 percent of her market is based in the United States.
Daniels now has a store space in Fort Smith, and it won’t be long before Naidié Nezų products are in stores in other NWT communities.
The company is also starting a subscription service that will send subscribers products created using plants that are in season.
As her business expands, Daniels says she will always look for new ways to give back to her community.
“Naidié Nezų means good medicine,” she says. “We have to live up to our name.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.