Despite her demanding full-time job, a mother of two young children, Harmony, 7, and Justice Eagle, 3, Charlene Worrell Eckel has turned her heart and hands to a traditional skill with results that surprise even her.
Eckel, of the Sycuan Kumeyaay Tribe in San Diego, has created a line of spa products based on traditional ethnobotanical knowledge. “The Kumeyaay people were well-known for their knowledge of plants and understanding of their medicinal uses. I have always been inspired by that fact and nature in general.”
Her products were introduced to the public last September when she previewed her line at a local pow wow. “It went really well; I sold out of everything.”
The product line is small, but each creation has a distinctive character that makes it different from other Native and non-Native products. “Native Essentials has a sweetgrass lotion with aloe,” she explained. “Sweetgrasses are used in Native American rituals, blessings and purifications to get rid of bad energy.”
Therapy bath salts are made with epsom salts and dead sea salts. “The salts are really good for drawing out toxins. In one of my therapy salts you find little pieces of sage. I go and pick sage on the hillside right near my house. I incorporate in my bath salts and soaps some things that are grown locally on the reservation. But most ingredients I get from my distributor because there’s so much demand.”
Photo courtesy Charlene Worrell Eckel/Native Essentials Charlene Worrell Eckel, Sycuan Kumeyaay Tribe, prepared one of her lotions from her Native-themed spa products line. Eckel, 26, started Native Essentials on her own, financing it from her own resources.
Her wholesale distributor sells her ingredients and helps her formulate products. “They’ll send the ingredients to me and then I’ll mix everything in my garage at my house. I make everything myself. I bottle the products, and I have a friend who’s a graphic designer, so that’s where my label comes from.”
Manufacturing the products is no small task. Eckel makes the formulas, then does the measuring, mixing, bottling, labeling, shipping and billing that makes her long-held passion a business.
“It has always been a hobby of mine – making soaps, bath teas and different tinctures. There are very few Native American-owned beauty products and spa lines out there. I thought I should give it a go, with encouragement from my family. I believe it was the right move.”
Eckel said the business grew right before her eyes. “It’s been taking off faster than I’ve been prepared for, but that’s not a bad thing.”
Among the company’s other products are massage oil infused with sage and eucalyptus. “Sage and eucalyptus combined create a natural remedy for sore muscles and can be used to replace commercial products. All of my products are 85 to 100 percent organic. Anything else that’s added is to extend shelf life.”
In addition to mud and clay face masks, Native Essentials has “a selection of handmade natural soaps, about 10 different scents. They’re all vegetable-oil based and they’re all cold pressed, not just your melt and pour, but a whole process made from scratch.”
Eckel explained that some soaps are produced from an already-made base bought from a distributor which is melted and poured into molds. “Our soap is actually made from scratch. One thing about my products that makes them different from other products is that they’re not just scented; they’re made with essential oils that are extracted from the plants, so they hold the benefits of the plant.”
The company has requests for other products – shampoos, conditioners, body wash – and a lot of requests for packaging in hotel amenities sizes.
Eckel’s full-time job is a commissioner for the Sycuan Gaming Commission. Some of her duties include protecting tribal assets and making sure policies and procedures are followed correctly. The almost 200-member tribe owns a casino and golf course and has purchased the historic US Grant hotel in downtown San Diego, which it has turned into a 4.5-star facility.
Eckel, 26, started Native Essentials on her own, financing it from her own resources. “I save a lot of money by doing everything myself. I don’t have a company that makes the products for me and ships them out.”
Creating healing products from natural ingredients has been a long-term interest of Eckel’s as well as a skill developed by generations of her ancestors. “I never had any intentions of making a career out of this. I only did it because I had a passion for it, and I think what makes Native Essentials so unique is that I’m not trying to make a bunch of money or get rich. I truly want to share these gifts and Native wisdom with the world. I put much time and my heart and soul into every one of my products. I work out of my home right here on the Sycuan Indian Reservation – no factories or imported products from China. This is the real deal. You truly can’t get any closer to Mother Earth, our oldest medicine woman.”
Her advice to other Native Americans starting a business: “Make sure your heart is really into it because it takes a lot of work. If your heart is into it, you’ll do well.”