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Sustainable self-care: embracing native artisans and their creations

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Sweetgrass Soapery & All Walks Trading Co. Founder discusses her comprehensive process, native culture, and community involvement

This post is part of Sodak 350s monthly "Climate Champions" blog series, where we will be chatting with leaders in our community that are doing great work to build a sustainable future for eastern South Dakota

This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Miranda Koltze, Founder and Owner of Sweetgrass Soapery & All Walks Trading Co. Miranda represents the select few native-owned shops to sell natural and homemade cultural goods.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about your journey towards becoming a small business owner. How did you first get interested in making healthy bath and body products?

I grew up on a Western South Dakota ranch and have always been about all things natural and from the earth. We canned most of our food. The nearest grocery store was an hour and a half away. We had to learn to do things sustainably. When I moved here for college, I met my husband, who has a green thumb. It was the first summer living together, and I suggested a tomato plant. I was starting to miss the fresh veggies I lacked in college. He then grew tomatoes, pumpkin, squash, and cucumbers. After, I began to clean out my cupboards. I have always been a bath and body girl. With a baby coming, I questioned all the chemical-filled products we had around the house. A friend visited and brought us a little bar of soap she had made. It was my first introduction to handmade soap. I then saw my parents in Amish country, where they all made their soaps. I brought a bar home and was obsessed. We then purchased an acreage south of town, near Yankton. That is where it took off because we had animals then. We went through our first butchering process: it was all about using every piece of the animal. That provides usable fats. I thought I would try making handmade soap. We started adding soaps to our farmers' market table. And they were selling faster than anything we could grow. It began with card tables worth of soaps and herbs, like sage. A lot of people had not seen culturally significant herbs and remedies before. Our presence at the Falls Park Farmers Market continued to grow each year. Now we are up to 20 feet of table space plus shelving. I will never leave the farmers market, the catalyst for all this growth. It is important to tell my story and get soap into people's hands.

Tell us more about your process and why you use the different components in your products.

The soap itself started as using a resource we already had. Lard is a great sustainable option. I source lard from local farmers and market vendors. They bring it straight from the butcher, and I render it myself. This process makes the soap more special. You cannot beat lard for its moisturizing and lather properties. We use olive and coconut. Coconut has a high cleansing factor. Olive oil is gentle, a rich additive to the soap. We try to avoid palm oil, but we carry a couple of responsibly sourced products with palm. Those have been my three sources of fats. Sweetgrass has been the focus for more than fifteen years. Sweetgrass farms grew into Sweetgrass Soapery. Sweetgrass, sage, and cedar have always been the most used. What drove what I do, was going to native-inspired shops with mostly imported goods. Most of it is not sustainably grown. A good amount of sweet grass comes from Canada. When the grass comes in, you can see it has been ripped out of the ground by its roots. That always disappointed me when looking for things that I needed. I just hoped other people would hold that reverence, but it does not seem present in the retail market. So, our goal is to grow it ourselves, handle it carefully, cleanse it, and give thanks before it hits our shelves so that it goes off into a home in a happy way. With all the herbs we use, I must bring in sustainable sources. One of my favorites is Mountain Rose Herbs. You can be sure that every object in the store has my approval.

You touched on the exploitation and commercialization of sacred herbs like sage. How do you feel about the rise of non-indigenous peoples using sage and smudging?

Smudging is a practice done strictly by native folks. The name itself is a term to be used by our local indigenous population. Smudging has become an umbrella term for burning herbs. I think we have to make that clarification. Smudging is not necessarily what everyone thinks it is. It is something near and dear to cultural practices here. As for white folks using it, white sage is not native to us. Our local plains natives traded that in. We do have white influence all over. So many of us are so mixed now. I do not believe in blood quantum. We are all registered. Even as white people, their ancestors had ways of burning herbs for spiritual cleansing. We all have the right to use these items, especially for their healing properties. I do not feel it is my job to gate-keep or keep anybody from using things. A white family adopted me. Nobody ever showed or taught me about these culturally significant items. I did not have anybody to gift me those items or think of me when they gathered the medicines. I find myself being an educational source and open arms to folks in my situation. We strive for accessibility in an honorable fashion. We want people to come in here and feel comfortable and be able to ask questions. I hope to guide them. I have faced opinions from both sides. At this rate and juncture, we have provided more healing and comfort than anything to folks. And that is what it is about.

You mentioned a more well-known aspect of indigenous culture, resourcefulness, which you employ at your farm. If they do, how do your Native American roots further guide your views on sustainability?

It probably did not start that way. But I got in touch with my herbal relatives through the years. They are a sense of comfort and direction. I was in a car wreck a few years ago with my family. We were all in a lot of pain. At one point, I was just sick of it all. So, I walked on my farm and consulted with my favorite tree. I closed my eyes, and the wind picked up. This cleansing feeling went through me. As I go deeper into my process, I get closer to feeling my ancestors are looking out for me. Sweetgrass was always on my mind growing up. I could never put my finger on the smell that constantly followed me around. One day, my husband gifts me sweetgrass. Things came together as I aged and was mindfully connecting with my heritage. It affects me every day as I am working. I talk to myself a lot. I am talking to my relatives and thanking them for the nourishment. For the healing, they provide through my hands to so many people. I think people can feel the difference. I get many comments about how good people feel when they use my products. We use paper instead of plastic whenever possible. Everything handmade is by local Native artists. We make sure our artists are paid fairly for their work. And they come and seek me out now. We try to preserve dying arts, like star quilts. We have free seeds and culturally relevant books. It would not all work without the cooperation of our community.

Do you have any advice for South Dakotans who want to be more sustainable, especially in their personal care?

Again, education, whether that be reading books or watching YouTube videos. You will be amazed at what you can find in your backyard. There are so many native medicinal plants around us. I could go out today and show you ten of them downtown here. I think we have all lost touch with that. One of the most important things you can do is take a moment. Take a quiet walk, look around, and get to know your surroundings. Research where your stress is coming from. There is a lot of bath and body out there marketed as natural, some of which I would never touch. You must be careful of meaningless certifications that companies pay for. Remember to come on in and talk to us! Many local herbalists know about the different regional plants. There is a role for everyone in our community. Some of us might not have found our gift yet. Support others and yourself in those journeys. I encourage it all. That is why we offer bulk herbal selections too. Folks come into the store and buy bath and body, but they also want to try experimenting with it themselves. There are little ways to change. It takes many people doing things imperfectly to make a change versus one person doing things perfectly.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about natural products or what you do as a whole?

There are so many different uses for natural products. Many products, like salves and soaps, can be used on more than one part of the body. You can be sustainable by not buying all these little items. A lot of work and time goes into making natural products. I will have people walk in and become agitated when they see our soap is seven dollars for a bar. Our soaps take a year to reach the shelves. To make herbs a part of your daily life, start small. Everyone's needs are so different. Look for products that meet the depths of your need.

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