Book note: Braiding Sweetgrass

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Wisdom of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Sweetgrass is an aromatic grass found in Canada and the northern USA.  Indigenous people of the Great Lakes believe it was a gift from Skywoman, a divine being who brought plant life to earth. They pluck the grass reverently, gather it into three bundles and weave it into braids.  Then they make the braids into baskets, which, according to their tradition, should always be given away, never sold for money.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and distinguished teaching professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. In this book, she weaves together three strands—indigenous ways of knowledge, scientific knowledge and stories of her own life and lives of her ancestors.

She does not draw a line between humanity and the natural world; she sees them as parts of the same thing.  She does not draw a line between scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge; she sees them as two ways of understanding the same reality.  

Indigenous knowledge has its own validity; scientific knowledge has its own beauty and awesomeness.  But both are needed.  Neither one is a substitute for the other.

She weaves her book out of many strands—myth, history, botanical lore, cultural survival, environmental and ecological issues, and her own experiences.   It is a rich tapestry, and I’ll only pick out a couple of the strands.

One strand is the Indian idea of the Honorable Harvest.  The idea is that it is permissible for humans use plants and animals to serve their own needs, but it has to be done with restraint and gratitude.

The rules are: Never take the first thing you find, because it may be the only one.  Never take more than half of what you find.  Never take more than you need.  Show respect and express gratitude for what you are given.  And give back as well as take.

This is a form of reverence for life that embraces acceptance of the fact of death.  Some sweetgrass has to be plucked or else the rest will not get enough sunlight and nutrients.  Some deer must fall to predators or hunters, or else the herd will starve.  My life and yours must end someday, or else there will be no room for new people.

Even if we get what we need from the supermarket rather than the forest, we can show gratitude and avoid greed and waste.

Another strand is the idea that plants are teachers.  Kimmerer shows the grandeur of cedar trees and the amazing tenacity of lichen and moss, but there is more to it than that.

It is a wonder and a mystery that living things can be brought into existence by the photosynthesis of light, air and water.  If it weren’t familiar, we’d call it a miracle.

Nor are plants passive entities.  They move and adapt to their environments, although at a pace of seasons and decades, not seconds and minutes.  They communicate and cooperate, using biochemistry instead of words and gestures.  Indeed, as she wrote, plants can be our teachers.

I don’t intend to romanticize indigenous American peoples.  They have their faults, like anybody else.  Their cultures have features I wouldn’t want to imitate and, in any case, they aren’t all alike; the fierce Comanche were very different from the peaceful Hopi, for example.

Nor do I think it is possible for non-indigenous Americans, at least not the vast majority of us, to become Potawatomi or Onondaga or the like.

But I do think we can learn from the best in other cultures, and this helps us appreciate what’s good in our own.

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Braiding Sweetgrass was the 2021 Rochester Reads recommendation of Writers & Books Literary Center In Rochester, N.Y.

LINKS

Braiding Sweetgrass by the Museum of Natural History of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

How to Braid Sweetgrass on YouTube.

Robin W. Kimmerer – Environmental Biology web page on the SUNY Center for Environmental Science and Forestry.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation – People of the Place of Fire web page.

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One Response to “Book note: Braiding Sweetgrass”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I often wonder about how much native American culture that we hear about is a romanticized version of reality. Very much like the rest of us were taught a romanticized version of the founding of the country. Somewhat true but in soft focus and the harsher aspects cropped out.

    Like

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