- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I was able to hear Robin Kimmerer speak at my university for an environmental humanities program. She was a good choice. In her talk, as in her newest book, she narratively promotes a much-needed synthesis between indigenous and Western understandings of the environment and ecology. Pushing beyond mainstream green politics or policies of preservation and conservation, Kimmerer expertly outlines the crucial relationships and responsibilities Native peoples have long maintained with the nonhuman world, relationships and responsibilities that require a fundamentally reciprocal interaction. Kimmerer pulls together thirty-two stories of encounter, language, learning, and science. She draws from a number of traditions, including her own Potawatomi heritage (and the Three Fires Confederacy more generally), as well as those of the Haudenosaunee (on whose lands she now lives), and the somewhat vaguely identified Salmon Nations of Oregon. By the end, Braiding Sweetgrass nicely complicates and expands on the increasingly popular discussion of traditional ecological knowledge by sharing some of the specific ways that individual plants and entire ecosystems have been and can (only) be promoted or recovered through healthy, balanced relationships with humans.
Kimmerer’s book works fits comfortably with a growing body of recent work that reveal both the connections and disjunctures between Western scientific theories and practices and what is now called traditional ecological knowledge. Her deeply narrative approach and intimate, [End Page 439] nuanced treatment of scientific and tribal plant knowledge seem a natural progression from her previous work, Gathering Moss (2003), which often read more like a scientific journal. This new writing more clearly illustrates and fully realizes the potential of an environmental humanities approach. Braiding Sweetgrass masterfully blends a smooth mixture of stories, technical jargon, botany, and life lessons (both hers and ours).
For those familiar with this emerging genre of environmental humanities and that of indigenous science more generally, we can look back at Gregory Cajete’s Native Science (1999) and its argument, still jarring to some, that indigenous peoples and cultures practiced an intimately informed, scientific engagement with the nonhuman world. Kimmerer extends this argument, specifically treating the relationships necessary between humans, plants, and ecosystems. In its philosophical approach, her work also mirrors the contributions of F. David Pear’s Blackfoot Physics (2005), which is focused on indigenous ontologies, by making a parallel call for broad, holistic reorientations in the environmental sciences. Her environmental humanities delivery simultaneously uses a narrative method and articulates the value of storytelling more generally and thus compares favorably to Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape (2012), which is more narrowly focused on the politics and power of traditional food knowledge and a bit less artfully presented. Kimmerer’s generally philosophical-traditional approach is certainly more precisely dedicated to plants than the wonderful survey provided by Melissa Nelson’s collection of indigenous ecological-philosophical essays, Original Instructions (2008), and thus offers a sustained voice and style. On the whole, whatever these texts’ many contributions, what Braiding Sweetgrass does better than all these other texts is tell stories, all of which help readers see the value and potential of our relations with plants and the nonhuman world.
In the chapter entitled “Allegiance to Gratitude,” for example, Kimmerer thoughtfully annotates the already widely published Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. She alternately conveys the word-for-word text of the address with her own elaboration of the purpose, impact, significance, and implications of such a ceremonial act. “The words [of the address] are simple,” she suggests, “but in the art of their joining, they become a statement of sovereignty, a political structure, a Bill of Responsibilities, an educational model, a family tree, and a scientific [End Page 440] inventory of ecosystem services. It is a powerful political document, a social contract, a way of being— all in one piece. But first and foremost, it is the credo for a culture of gratitude” (115). This quote, and this chapter, model her approach to each of the chapters and to her book as a...