Small Town Success: How Indigenous skincare company Sḵwálwen Botanicals is making its mark

The Squamish-based skincare brand is growing naturally

Leigh Joseph felt an intrinsic relationship between plants and culture from a young age.

Born and raised in Victoria in Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories, Joseph regularly visi­ted family in Snuneymuxw, or Nanaimo, on their land along the Nanaimo River. Her relatives—who were deeply connected to the land—helped instil a sense of reverence for the natural world.

She became interested in ethnobotany as a career path after attending a lecture with the renowned ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner in Vancouver. “I realized that there was this area of study that brought together things I was really passionate about, including spending time on the land, reconnecting more deeply with culture and connecting with plants,” Joseph explains.

She did undergraduate and master’s degrees in ethnobotany. Then it was time to deepen her relationships with plants through lived experience. “I’d spent so much time reading and writing about plants, and not as much time out in the forest,” she shares.

At the time, Joseph was living in remote communities between Northern B.C. and the Yukon, where access to the wild was abundant. “I would go out each day for either a walk or cross-country ski and revisit the same stretches of forest and lakeshore,” she recalls.

Inspired by the flora and fauna she visited year-round, she began experimenting with sustainably harvesting plants, creating her own home apothecary and making skincare products. Little did Joseph know that this hobby would soon turn into her own Indigenous skincare business in 2018—one that helped her marry ancestral traditions with modern beauty rituals.

At her first holiday market in the Yukon, she sold out of everything. “I was blown away by the support and interest,” she says.

Soon, Swálwen Botanicals was born. Her father’s side of the family is originally from Squamish Nation—as a kid, she regularly visited there, dreaming of one day returning to her home nation. She decided to incorporate the Squamish language into her business through her company and product names; in fact, Swálwen is a Squamish language word, and while it doesn’t translate directly to English, Joseph says that a close meaning is “being in a good state of heart, mind and spirit.”

A product from Sḵwálwen Botanicals

In 2019, she and her husband moved to Squamish.

“Coming home to Squamish was profound; I was now on this landscape where my ancestors once lived, and I was able to reach out to community members to help me incorporate Squamish language and harvest ingredients from Squamish territory,” she shares.

That same year, Joseph began hiring community members from Squamish and now has a team of eight. She also went on Dragons’ Den, which was a huge milestone and resulted in increased Canadian brand awareness for her company. Today, Swálwen products are carried in over 80 retailers across Canada, and the company has a dedicated Instagram community of over 47,000 followers. This year, the business also opened its own retail front in downtown Squamish, where the team does everything from production to order fulfillment to office admin. In 2024, Joseph plans to begin exporting products to the U.S.

Swálwen is more than a skincare company, though; through her work, Joseph aims to help heal the intergenerational effects of cultural trauma within the Squamish Nation by learning, working with and preserving Indigenous plants. Her goal is to build out the company’s Indigenous supply chain through community partnerships and increase Indigenous representation in the beauty industry.

Further, her hope is to help people connect with nature via workshops, plant walks and her recently published book, Held By the Land: A Guide to Indigenous Plants for Wellness. “When we are outside, whether it’s in a garden or a wild setting, we tap into something and find a way of being present on the land,” shares Joseph. “There is something about being in the presence of beings that have that longer history than us on this earth.”