Braiding Sweetgrass cover

Braiding Sweetgrass - Book Summary

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Duration: 18:53
Release Date: November 5, 2023
Book Author: Robin Wall Kimmerer
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Nature & the Environment
Duration: 18:53
Release Date: November 5, 2023
Book Author: Robin Wall Kimmerer
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Nature & the Environment

In this episode of "20 Minute Books", we dive into the world of "Braiding Sweetgrass". Immerse yourselves in this nature-centred masterpiece authored by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer, a distinguished professor in the Environmental Sciences and Forestry Department at the State University of New York, combines her scientific background with her Potawatomi Indian heritage to reveal insights on our symbiotic relationship with nature.

"Braiding Sweetgrass" is a beautiful fusion of science, culture, and spirituality, serving as a bridge between modern ecology and traditional Native American beliefs. It emphasizes the interdependence of humans and the environment, urging readers to treat nature with respect and gratitude rather than exploit it. Kimmerer challenges us to reassess our approach towards Mother Earth and to consider how indigenous wisdom can contribute to a more sustainable future.

This enchanting narrative would captivate environmental enthusiasts, anthropology and botany students, and those drawn to a holistic approach to science. So if you have a deep appreciation for nature or are curious about indigenous knowledge and its relevance to today's environmental issues, this episode is for you. Tune in and let "Braiding Sweetgrass" weave its magic on you.

Uncovering the roots of environmental connection and reciprocity

Have you ever reflected on the profound connection between our environment and humanity? Global warming, dying bees, eroding coastlines, extinct species — these are not just fleeting headlines but distressing realities of our world. But remember, these crises didn't crop up overnight. They're echoes from the past, reverberating ominously in the chambers of the present.

In this gripping exploration, we dive into the personal narratives that weave a tale about not only the catastrophic consequences of the colonization of the Americas on its indigenous people and native species but also the indigenous wisdom that potentially holds the key to restoring our ailing planet.

During this journey, you'll delve into:

— The story of sweetgrass, an emblem of our connection to nature and its existential bond with the Potawatomi people,

— The cultural significance of reciprocity among the Potawatomi, and how it shapes their interactions with the world around them, and

— The transformative power of giving back and how it could be our saving grace in the environmental crisis we face today.

Living amidst a cultural kaleidoscope: A Potawatomi perspective

Inhabiting dual worlds is an everyday reality for Robin Wall Kimmerer, our author. Being a Native American, she navigates the choppy waters where modern American life collides with the ancient traditions of her family's tribe, the Potawatomi. These two worlds are often on colliding paths, and reconciling them can be daunting.

The Potawatomi tribe, much like other Native American tribes in the nineteenth century, bore the brunt of detrimental government policies as America steadily expanded. Death marched alongside many tribe members as they were forcefully displaced from their ancestral lands.

Kimmerer's grandmother, a Potawatomi member herself, was one of the lucky few granted citizenship and legal rights as a landowner in Oklahoma. Growing up, Kimmerer spent substantial time with her grandmother, even attending tribal gatherings. Yet, the majority of her childhood unfolded in upstate New York, continually exposing her to the stark contrast between Potawatomi customs and the norms of contemporary American society.

One noticeable discrepancy was the relationship with nature, particularly regarding the bounty it offers. For instance, Kimmerer fondly recalls foraging wild strawberries in a field near her school. She perceived these offerings as part of the world's 'gift economy'—gifts freely given, expecting nothing in return.

The Potawatomi culture nurtures this gift economy through the practice of reciprocity. For instance, after enjoying the strawberries, Kimmerer would return to the fields at the end of the berry season, search for seedlings, and prepare new plots for planting. This nurturing reciprocity fosters a symbiotic relationship with nature, akin to a bond between two individuals who lovingly care for each other.

However, her experience of modern American society showed a stark deviation from the gift economy model. She reminisces about her childhood job at a local strawberry farm. The farm owner's strict rule against eating any strawberries without paying for them hit home the harsh reality — in modern America, even nature's bounty came with a price tag. The strawberries she picked as part of her job, ironically, often slipped through her fingers as she had to return most of her earnings back to the farm owner.

Reflecting on the intertwined destinies of sweetgrass and Native Americans

Immerse yourself in the natural bounty of sweetgrass, an aromatic herb, treasured not only for its practical uses but its deep-rooted cultural symbolism in traditional Potawatomi life.

The Potawatomi tribe's lore reveres the tale of Skywoman, a divine figure who descended from the heavens, sowing the seeds of life across Earth. The very first sprout of life she stirred into existence was none other than sweetgrass.

This sacred herb is integrated into Potawatomi life in multiple ways — for spiritual practices, it is meticulously braided to resemble Skywoman's hair, while its practical use involves weaving it into functional baskets. The act of crafting a basket from sweetgrass holds a deeply spiritual meaning: by transforming the herb into a new creation, tribespeople pay homage to Skywoman, their creator.

However, just like any precious resource, sweetgrass, too, is under threat, making it increasingly challenging to find. The invasion of foreign plants introduced by European settlers threatens its existence. Like unwelcome guests, these alien plants have overrun lands where sweetgrass thrived for centuries, pushing it toward the brink of disappearance.

It's hard to ignore the eerie echo of the Potawatomi tribe's own history in the story of sweetgrass. The same way foreign plant species displaced sweetgrass, the steady influx of colonizers uprooted indigenous tribes from their ancestral homes.

The domino effect of colonization didn't stop at displacement. Indigenous culture and languages were systematically suppressed. Countless children were torn from their families and thrust into government schools where their native languages and traditions were ruthlessly silenced.

This onslaught inflicted deep, lasting scars on both the tribal communities and the land they cherished. Healing these wounds calls for a radical reimagining of our relationship with Mother Nature and the world that we inhabit.

In the narratives that follow, we'll learn how indigenous wisdom can provide us the tools to navigate this path — how we can incorporate their knowledge into our contemporary lives and start the healing process for our planet and ourselves.

Nurturing nature: Embracing the virtues of gratitude and reciprocity

Indigenous cultures offer a rich reservoir of wisdom, particularly when it comes to their philosophy of reciprocity — an infinite, cyclical relationship between humans and the world around them. It's a life lesson that embraces humanity's interconnectedness.

Celebrated anthropologist Paula Gunn encapsulates the essence of reciprocity through her portrayal of the three stages of a woman's life.

The journey commences with the "Way of the Daughter", where young girls receive invaluable life lessons from their parents, learning to navigate the world and take care of themselves. As they blossom into womanhood, they enter the next phase: the "Way of the Mother." This period involves passing on the wisdom received from their parents to the next generation, nurturing their children with love and knowledge.

The cycle comes to fruition with the third stage, the "Way of the Teacher". As they age, women evolve into role models for their community, dispensing advice and guidance to parents and others alike, thereby completing the cycle of reciprocity.

It's such loving, nurturing relationships that we need to foster with the world at large.

Kimmerer illustrates this point through her personal encounter with a polluted pond overgrown with algae, ensnaring unsuspecting birds. Over twelve years, Kimmerer devoted herself to caring for the pond, systematically removing the algae and ensuring its cleanliness — a testament to her commitment to reciprocity with nature.

Such loving care initiates a positive cycle. With the pond free from pollutants, the bird population can thrive again. Clean water is available for other creatures to swim in, and as the pond flows downstream, it revitalizes other bodies of water in its path.

Contrast this with modern society's treatment of nature. Practices like relentless mining of non-renewable resources offer no reciprocal benefits. They only lead to depletion and irreparable harm, not just to the planet but also to the miners whose lives are at risk. Recognizing the importance of reciprocal relationships could pave the way toward a more sustainable relationship with our environment.

A harmonious dance with nature: The key to sustainable living

In recent decades, there's been a shift in humanity's mindset towards the environment — a step towards a more responsible outlook. This shift is reflected in the growing adoption of environmentally friendly practices like recycling. Yet, much remains to be accomplished.

For the Potawatomi, sustainability isn't just a desirable outcome; it's an intrinsic goal achieved through reciprocity.

This understanding of harmony with nature was foreign to European settlers who arrived on American shores. They were perplexed to find Native Americans harvesting only half of their rice crops. This wasn't wasteful but a testament to their practice of reciprocity.

By leaving half of the crops unharvested, they were showing their gratitude to the land that sustained them. The unharvested rice allowed other creatures to forage and ensured that the land would be well-seeded for the next harvest. This approach is known as an "honorable harvest" — a practice of sustainable farming that encourages taking only what is needed for survival, leaving the rest as a token of thankfulness.

Regrettably, this ethos of reciprocity and sustainability is often absent from our food and farming policies.

A few states have made attempts to introduce a sense of balance, enacting laws stipulating prohibitions — such as the rule against fishing non-adult trout. But these are merely rules to be abided by, with a breach attracting a fine.

In contrast, the honorable harvest is a pact not between the state and its citizens, but between two living entities — humans and nature. It's an agreement that involves taking only what is needed and leaving enough for nature to replenish itself. In return, nature continues to provide us with sustenance.

With this reciprocal perspective, we can revolutionize our approach to sustainability. Instead of just disposing of waste paper in the appropriate recycling bin, contemplate ways to express gratitude for the countless gifts bestowed upon us by trees.

In the face of the global threat of deforestation, it's important to educate oneself and others about the potential consequences. You can even participate in local tree-planting initiatives, extending your hand in a gesture of reciprocity and honoring the cycle of sustainability.

Turning to tradition: Embracing old wisdom for sustainable solutions

Kimmerer, with her intimate understanding of Potawatomi traditions and a professional background in environmental biology, offers a unique vantage point that unites different perspectives for an enriched comprehension of the world.

She harnessed this dual insight in her botany class when she realized that her students were disengaged with the traditional academic approach.

Seeking a solution, she infused her curriculum with practical Native American teachings, which transformed her class. Her students became more engrossed, and she shifted the setting of her first class from a conventional classroom to a garden. Here, they learnt about an agricultural technique known as the "Three Sisters."

Far more than a captivating myth and farming methodology, the "Three Sisters" demonstrates how traditional methods can successfully aid crop growth without resorting to potentially harmful modern techniques.

The "Three Sisters" technique, based on a mythical tale of three sisters who sought refuge in a village during a harsh winter storm, is a practice of beneficial interplanting. Despite their scant resources, the villagers shared their meager food supplies with the sisters. In gratitude, the sisters revealed their true identities as embodiments of corn, beans, and squash, gifting the villagers with an abundance of their seeds.

The seeds proved to be ideal for planting together, with each plant assisting the others. The quickly growing corn provides a vertical support for the bean plant, its leaves capturing moisture to foster the corn's growth. The squash, as the third sister, guards her siblings, warding off insects with her sharply pointed leaves.

Yet, modern agriculture frequently overlooks sustainable techniques, like cultivating plants that naturally support and protect each other. Instead, vast cornfields are sprayed with toxic insecticides, an unsustainable practice that has adverse effects.

Some of these pesticides harm other animals and even wipe out bees, essential pollinators of the plant species we rely on. Drawing from traditional methods might provide the key to more sustainable agricultural practices that work in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Securing a sustainable future: Inspiring gratitude and respect in the next generation

Climate change, an impending crisis linked to the careless utilization of earth's resources, calls for an urgent revision of our priorities.

Our best hope lies in cultivating the next generation's awareness and appreciation for environmental stewardship. It's our duty to ensure that children grow up recognizing the importance of gratitude towards nature.

One way to do this is quite straightforward — imagine a pledge of allegiance to nature, recited daily in schools. While many schools already pledge allegiance to the flag, consider the impact of children also expressing gratitude for the land they inhabit and the environment they depend upon.

Native American schools have blazed the trail, instilling this innovative concept by having students recite a thanksgiving address acknowledging Mother Earth's provision of food, water, and shelter.

An entire generation could be nurtured with a profound sense of gratitude, encouraging them to give back to nature rather than always taking.

A daily affirmation of thanks could foster a proactive mindset, inspiring young minds to drive positive change, rather than merely voicing complaints about the state of the world. In battling climate change, we need action-driven individuals.

Consider New England's maple trees as an example. They don't merely offer delicious syrup for pancakes; they supply firewood and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet, if climate change progresses unchecked, New England might become too warm for these trees within five decades.

To protect the maple trees, it's imperative that New Englanders move beyond mere complaints and take political action. Raising awareness and supporting political entities lobbying for higher carbon taxes could compel businesses to change their practices.

The Potawatomi wisdom encapsulates a profound, yet simple, truth: by returning the favor in the present, we assure our ability to receive in the future.

Closing thoughts

A central tenet of numerous indigenous cultures is the symbiotic bond between humans and nature. This principle advocates that we respond to the gifts we receive from nature, not just by accepting them, but also by expressing gratitude and giving back. Treating nature as we would a beloved family member fosters an environment that thrives, securing a sustainable world for future generations to cherish.

Braiding Sweetgrass Quotes by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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