As a child, Angela Kingsawan remembers treating illnesses with salves and teas, similar to what her Indigenous and Mexican ancestors from the Mexica, Tigua and Tarahumara tribes used.
Since then, instead of keeping the knowledge to herself, Kingsawan has always found ways to pass her knowledge on.
When she worked as a machinist and welder for Harley-Davidson, Kingsawan would make salves to help with the aches and pains that came with the job, sharing her homemade remedies with co-workers.
“When my daughters were growing up, it was just something I did,” said Kingsawan, 45, who grew up and lives in the Clarke Square neighborhood.
But her side interests eventually evolved into something more after she sustained a back injury in 2012. Left without a job and in severe pain, Kingsawan did what she had been taught to do: She took a holistic approach to healing.
She immersed herself in the world of herbs and such holistic healing practices as yoga. Eventually, her middle daughter encouraged her to seek her yoga teaching certificate, if only to deepen her own knowledge. And after Kingsawan completed the course, her instructor encouraged her to find a way to teach her community. Kingsawan eventually connected with the Ho-Chunk Nation in Milwaukee.
In her classes, Kingsawan began incorporating her knowledge of native herbs and movement, some drawn from lessons her mother and her paternal grandmother taught her.
Her classes focused on decolonization and empowering communities to reclaim their way of life. She works with groups that have been colonized or historically mistreated and helps them reconnect with their roots. For example, when she worked with the Ho-Chunk Nation, she incorporated herbs and practices native to that community.
“I think everyone wants to connect with culture, and people are starting to reclaim their culture,” she said.
As she taught, she continued to learn.
Aside from researching on her own, Kingsawan made a point to talk with people – from the Indigenous communities she connected with to the European grandmothers at the park to the refugees who attended her workshops.
“I always want to learn and grow,” she said. “Every time I learn something, I put it into action and all these methods can be put into modernized use.”
These days, Kingsawan offers workshops to locals, refugees and organizations interested in learning how to garden, cook and embrace nature. The workshops take place at various organizations, Kingsawan’s own home and occasionally the homes of her students, whom she calls apprentices.
‘Her knowledge drew me in’
Rita Saavedra, 43, a Milwaukee resident and one of Kingsawan’s apprentices, first met Kingsawan two years ago when she began seeking a healthier alternate lifestyle.
“Her knowledge drew me in,” Saavedra said. “She knows her history and history of ethnic groups, and she’s always willing to share her knowledge.”
With Kingsawan’s guidance, Saavedra and her family began living a more natural lifestyle that focused on herbs, eating right and mindfulness.
“It’s been a blessing,” she said. “She taught not just me, but my family, how to be mindful about food and waste.”
These days, Saavedra avoids medication and instead uses herbs to heal her and her family’s ailments. Her husband even built a greenhouse so that the family can have access to fresh herbs and vegetables.
A resource to the community
Kingsawan works with the Lynden Sculpture Garden and the Wisconsin African Community Advocates, a nonprofit organization that focus on integration, development, education and social empowerment in the African American community. She also worked for Walnut Way Conservation Corp. as its urban agricultural coordinator before her position was eliminated in a restructuring in July 2020.
Emonia Barnett, a Lindsay Heights resident, was encouraged to connect more with nature after meeting Kingsawan at Walnut Way.
“She’s a lovely lady and genuinely good spirit,” Barnett said. “Her knowledge was something I needed.”
Once, Barnett had to postpone a meeting with Kingsawan because she was not feeling well. Kingsawan came over anyway, recommending which herb would make the best tea and compress.
“People don’t want to share their knowledge anymore, but she’s not like that,” Barnett said.
Because of Kingsawan, Barnett and several other community members planted gardens at their homes and at a plot connected to Walnut Way.
Plans for the future
Five years ago, Kingsawan moved back into her childhood home and transformed the backyard into an herbalist paradise. Her garden contains traditional plants and herbs such as mint as well as milkweed and whatever else chooses to grow there.
Her dream is to combine Milwaukee’s industrial history and her herbal background and turn the city into an herbal industry. For now, she’s focusing on making herbal mail-order boxes, which she hopes to start sending out soon.
The boxes will contain healing herbs and remedies, a piece from a local artisan and something of cultural significance. Her goal is to not only help heal people’s mental, emotional and physical ailments but also to expose a bigger audience to the culture that’s impacted Milwaukee.
As she forages ahead, her focus remains as always on not only helping but learning from the community.
“I always want to learn and grow and enjoy being invited in,” she said. “When you’re humble, grateful and kind, it moves mountains.”
In case you missed it: OPINION: What Native American Heritage Month means to me
This story is part of an occasional series that highlights groups and people worth knowing in Milwaukee. To nominate a person or a group, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Spotlight” in the subject line.