95 pages 3 hours read

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Written in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is a nonfiction book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The work 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. Winner of the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, Braiding Sweetgrass peaked at No. 9 on the New York Times Best Sellers paperback nonfiction list.

Plot Summary

An herb native to North America, sweetgrass is sacred to Indigenous people in the United States and Canada. Kimmerer likens braiding sweetgrass into baskets to her braiding together three narrative strands: “indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinaabekwe scientist trying to bring them together” (x).

Kimmerer goes on to introduce the story of Skywoman, a foundational figure in Indigenous creation stories 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 informed by Indigenous traditions. Next, the author discusses pecans and their value as sustenance. Pecans are symbols of reciprocity, in that pecan trees ensure their survival by feeding people at times of great need, such as when the federal government forcibly relocated the Potawatomi from the Great Lakes region to reservations in Oklahoma. Kimmerer then discusses the gift economies of Indigenous people and how they differ from the market economies found in most modern Western societies. The author also recounts her father’s small ceremonies and their importance in showing respect.

When the author first arrives at college to study botany, her Indigenous identity clashes with the more empirical worldviews of her professors, but she manages to resolve these issues. She also tries to learn her traditional language, but it is very difficult. The Potawatomi grammar treats far more objects as if they are alive than English does. With this in mind, the author believes that “[l]earning the grammar of animacy could well be a restraint on our mindless exploitation of land” (58).

After her husband leaves her, the author moves with her two daughters from Kentucky to a house in upstate New York. There, she 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, the author takes up kayaking, finding consolation among the water lilies. She recalls when her daughter refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and suggests that a “Pledge of Gratitude” to Mother Nature’s bounty would be a more appropriate morning recitation for schoolchildren.

Kimmerer then tells the story of the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash grown by Indigenous people. She provides a scientific explanation about why they grow so well together, reinforcing the book’s theme of reciprocity.

Visiting a friend, the author learns to weave sweetgrass baskets. She then 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, providing evidence contradicting the widespread scientific consensus that harvesting a plant will always cause its population to thin. The author also details the story of Nanabozho, the “Original Man” of the Anishinaabekwe people who taught others “how to be human” (205).

One of the author’s early teaching jobs involves taking pre-med students on a field trip to a nature reserve in the southern United States. Afterward, she worries that she failed to teach her Christian students about respect for nature. However, the students begin to sing “Amazing Grace” on the drive home, and the author realizes that there are many ways of showing respect and reverence.

The author describes the annual salmon harvest in the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century and how European settlers decimated it. Although a lot of the damage has been undone, the salmon have yet to return. She also discusses lichen—life at its most reciprocal—and the conservation efforts to preserve cedar trees. One man, Franz Dolp, dedicated his life to regrowing cedar forests, though he died before the trees reached their full height.

In later chapters, the author introduces the Windigo, “the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people” (304). A creature so ravenous that it chewed off its own lips, the Windigo is a warning to 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” (306), which she takes to mean overconsumption.