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

— This review by Anne Raver first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2019

Robin Law Kimmerer begins Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Skywoman, who falls from a hole in the Skyworld, clutching a bundle of branches with many fruits and seeds. She hurtles downward, in a shaft of light, where there was only darkness before, toward the murky water below. Many eyes in the sea are watching, and geese rise up to break her fall, holding her in their soft feathers. A great turtle offers his back for her to step upon, a muskrat dives deep into the water to bring a handful of mud from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the turtle’s shell, scatters the seeds in her hand, and dances the world from brown to green.

Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizens Potawatomi Nation, combines science and the knowledge of her indigenous ancestors to contemplate the devastation that we humans, particularly descendants of the first white settlers, have wrought since first setting foot in the so-called New World (which, as Kimmerer points out, was only new to Europeans and other immigrants; to native inhabitants, it was as ancient as the creation story).

Kimmerer is a distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she also founded and directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The center works with tribal partners and students to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with scientific research for restoration and sustainability projects.

Kimmerer also is a poet and a storyteller, and Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together many threads– stories of her childhood, of her own children, of her graduate students, of desecrated lands and healed ones—with the page-turning power of a beautifully written novel. At the same time, her mind, sharpened by both science and the observational skills of her tribal elders, is constantly analyzing the particulars of any given situation, be it the near extinction of wild salmon in the Northwest, or the chemical toxins that Allied Chemical poured into Onondaga Lake, or the day her daughter refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. (Kimmerer recalls her own childhood participation in the puzzling ritual, with its reference to God and the republic: “And you didn’t have to be an eight-year-old Indian to know that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was a questionable premise.”)

As a Potawatomi, Kimmerer considers plants and animals her teachers; she was listening to the trees long before scientists discovered how they communicate through pheromones in the air and mycorrhizae, a vast symbiosis of fungi and roots beneath the forest floor. Sweetgrass, or “wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” was one of the plants that Skywoman clutched in her hand, the day she fell out of that hole in the sky. It was a gift, just like all the other plants, just like the land itself, to be passed from hand to hand shared but never sold. A metaphor for sharing and reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth and others, Sweetgrass calls for a radical shift in consciousness.

As a teacher and activist, Kimmerer offers many examples of people working together to restore balance to the earth—to bring back salmon to their spawning grounds, to restore polluted lakes and salt marshes, to simply learn to listen to the plants and animals.