Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass

  • 49-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 32 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a Master's degree in English
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Braiding Sweetgrass Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The History of Indigenous People and The Intersection of Science and Spirituality.

Written in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, that examines modern botany and environmentalism through the lens of the traditions and cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America. Through a series of personal reflections, the author explores the connection between living things and human efforts to cultivate a more sustainable world. 

Plot Summary

The book begins with the story of Skywoman, whose arrival on earth brought the first plants, including sweetgrass. As a scientist, the author teaches Skywoman’s story to guide her students to a sustainable future, one informed by the past. Next, the author discusses pecans and their value as sustenance. She highlights how they fed people at times of great need, such as during the time of the Indian Removal policies of the federal government. She moves on to discuss gifts, and she points out the cultural differences between indigenous people and modern Western societies. She recounts her father’s small ceremonies and their importance in showing respect.

When the author first arrives in college, her indigenous identity clashes with her scientific instincts, but she manages to resolve these issues. She has tried to learn her traditional language, but it is very difficult. Later in her life, the author and her children make maple syrup, a local delicacy. After a lot of effort, they only produce a little.

After her husband leaves, the author finds a home upstate. She befriends a neighbor named Hazel and tries to clear the algae from a pond. The algae removal takes decades and is never truly finished. When her daughters grow up and move out, she takes up kayaking. She remembers when her daughter refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sympathizes with her.

The author tells the story of the Three Sisters, which were plants grown by indigenous people. She provides a scientific explanation about why they grow so well together. Visiting a friend, she learns to weave sweetgrass baskets. She recalls a student’s efforts to study sweetgrass cultivation and the scorn of the faculty committee who evaluate the proposal. Eventually, the student completes the study to great acclaim. The author explains the Honorable Harvest, in which people take only what they need and respect the environment.

The author recalls the story of Nanabozho, a personification of life forces who teaches people “how to be human” (156). He strives to bring balance to the world at all times. The author’s first teaching job involves a field trip to a nature reserve in the South. Afterward, she worries that she has failed to teach her Christian students about respect for nature. They begin to sing a hymn on the drive home, and the author realizes that there are many ways of showing respect and reverence. A similar trip includes students cultivating cattails in the wetlands and building a wigwam. Slowly, all of the students begin to learn about indigenous culture.

The author remembers the annual salmon harvest and how settlers destroyed it. Though a lot of the damage has been undone, the salmon are yet to return. The author plants sweetgrass beside the Mohawk River, thinking about people’s efforts to preserve and restore the indigenous culture. She talks about lichen, life at its most basic, and the conservation efforts to preserve cedar trees. One man, Franz Dolp, dedicated his life to re-growing cedar forests, though died before the trees reached their full height.

The Windigo is a myth among the indigenous peoples, warning those who are starving to death in winter of the dangers of turning toward cannibalism. To the author, the myth is a reminder to “recoil from the greedy parts of ourselves” (233), which she takes to mean overconsumption. She describes the incredible pollution of a lake, though recent efforts have tried to address it.

The author acknowledges the importance of stories in trying to restore the land to what it once was. She thinks about the Mayan creation stories and dreams of a world in which stories guide people while remaining rooted in science and framed by an indigenous view of the world. While listening to radio reports of the Iraq invasion, the author drives out to a dark road and tries to protect migrating salamanders. The author’s father taught her how to light a fire. She thinks about the various fire ceremonies and prophecies of her people; humanity will have a choice and the author hopes that the moment of decision has not already passed. The author is confronted by the specter of the Windigo. She confronts it with medicinal knowledge and then sits down and asks to hear its story.

In an epilogue, the author attends a gift giving ceremony and sees in it a model for a future world.

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