Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Authored by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Sweetgrass, as the hair of Mother Earth, is traditionally braided to show loving care for her well-being. Braids, plaited of three strands, are given away as signs of kindness.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology; and Director, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). She is the author of numerous scientific articles and books. She earned both a bachelor's and master's degree in biology and botany and was awarded her PhD in plant ecology.
What makes Dr. Kimmerer's teaching more powerful is her membership as a Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, which allows her to combine her heritage with her scientific, environmental knowledge and passions.
It would be difficult to include in this short article all the information, stories, lessons, history and more included in her wonderful book about her life as an indigenous woman and her respect for the land, water, animals, flora, and fauna.
Dr. Kimmerer's story begins with the story of Skywoman who fell from above onto earth becoming the first indigenous person living in an unfamiliar place. Being pregnant, Skywoman realizes she needs to live her life for the sake of her child's future and thus realizes she needs to care for the land, plants, and water to provide for her family.
Throughout the book, Dr. Kimmerer shares stories of how her forbearers, cruelly relocated from their native land to different states, allowed her to learn about not only the importance of the different plants, water sources, animals, birds, and more that would provide food, shelter, medicines, etc., for her family, but how to respect what they needed. In a span of a single generation, her ancestors moved three times – Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Through all the relocations, her ancestors cared for the land, water, trees, plants, soil and “learned to live with respect” for trees, animals for meat and fish available to them, never taking more than they needed. They learned and respected the needs of the different trees, berries, plants, grasses, and other edibles to sustain themselves as well as the land on which they grew.
By observing, they learned not only how plants and trees grow, but also how to store the fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and how to preserve fish and game to ensure there was plenty to eat when food was scarce. They never took more than they needed, leaving food for the creatures so they, too, would have food.
Paramount to the indigenous people (even today) is respect for the land. “When we call a place by name, it is transformed from a wilderness to homeland.” Dr. Kimmerer grew up with “leave this place better that when you found it” out of respect for the land and what it provides.
As a child, she grew up giving daily thanks for the “gifts” the natural world provided her family. As her love of science expanded, she admittedly “stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge.” She soon realized the “world has a way of guiding your steps.” Following a class about traditional knowledge of plants by a Navajo woman, Dr. Kimmerer found her re-awakening to reclaim the “other way of knowing” her indigenous mind, body, emotion, and spirit.
She later realized the indigenous words used to address the living world are the same words for her family, because the living world is also her family – the air, water, plants, birds, etc. She recognizes, as a mother who loves her children, Mother Earth loves her back by providing beans, tomatoes, beets, broccoli, peppers, berries, onions, dill, and much more.
Overtime, she finds herself thinking about our relationships with the land, how much we are given, and what we might give back. She thinks about the equations of reciprocity and responsibility, and the whys and wherefores of building sustainable relationships with the ecosystems. To her, gardens are simultaneously a material and spiritual undertaking. Any gardener will most likely admit there is an “exchange between people and plants.” Our love of fresh fruit will lead us to prune, irrigate, fertilize, weed, and more. Gardening creates love and respect for the earth, transforming the relationship “from a one-way street to a sacred bond.”
Dr. Kimmerer provides the example of the special relationship between corns, beans, and squash or the Three Sisters. As most plants do, they tell a story not by what the say, but what they do. For thousands of years, indigenous women have mounded up soil and planted three seeds of corn in the ground and they eventually emerge from the ground to form a stem. Beans are planted next to the corn and will eventually produce fleshy leaves to join the corn. Squash is last and will take its time.
The corn will sprout its stem first and grow straight. The leaves of the beans will put out their leaves all over the ground. Eventually the squash will begin to grow and its leaves will provide shade, keeping moisture in the soil and other plants out. As they grow, they support and respect one another. They are an example of what a community or group can do when they work together.
As she winds down her story, she laments the degradation the “collateral damage” due to our disregard for our Mother Earth from pollution of our air due to smoke stacks and vehicles, discharge waste (from mining, as well as our homes and businesses) into our waterways and oceans, taking habitat from creatures big and small to build shopping malls, the impact of climate change and more.
But there is a start to a happy ending in an updated revision of the book where as she recognizes an abrupt change in people's behavior and governments around the world who are recognizing we must act NOW to protect the only planet we have. She commends people around the world for changing their manner of living, raising their voices, taking action to save our land, air, water, and creatures.
Among the many life lessons within this book is a list of guidelines to reinforce small acts of daily life espoused by Dr. Kimmerer both in the garden and in our daily lives we all can follow to change our relationship with this world:
- Know the ways of the ones who take care of you so you may take care of them.
- Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
- Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Take only what is given.
- Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.