Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

“I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made of commodities.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer transcends boundaries, and so does her latest book. Simultaneously a botanist and author-poet, scientist and Potowatomi Nation citizen, professor and mother, she brings together unusually diverse perspectives and ways of knowing. The result is a gift to readers: beautiful writing exploring knowledge and ideas often buried in academia or dismissed as “unscientific.” As in her first book, Gathering Moss, her enthusiasm for nature and learning comes through strongly, a joy for any nature lover to read. She softens and contextualizes modern hard facts by relating them to indigenous worldviews developed over thousands of years. She reconciles art, appreciation of the natural world, and science (in many ways just now catching up to traditional knowledge.) Rejecting human exceptionalism, she considers all the beings with whom we share the earth while addressing deep questions of ethics and morality.

Braiding Sweetgrass draws on stories from elders and on Kimmerer’s own experiences for its 32 chapters. Each could stand alone, ranging across seemingly disparate subjects: relationships between masting nut trees and squirrels, gift economies vs market economies, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, harvesting plants in a regenerative manner, and what it means to be a good citizen. But the chapters are tied together by recurring elements, most notably the titular sweetgrass. Sections entitled Planting, Tending, Picking, Braiding, and Burning Sweetgrass organize the individual chapters, and sweetgrass appears again and again as part of traditional legend, knowledge, and practice. The book is densely multilayered, with specific material practices seamlessly integrated into broader teachings about the physical world, and then into deep philosophy. The real magic comes from Kimmerer skillfully interweaving themes of relationship, gratitude, and responsibility into a story larger than the sum of the parts. Her art mirrors a well-lived life which has transformed individual experiences into holistic wisdom.

The overarching theme, drawn forth through the dozens of stories in hundreds of ways, is reciprocity. A fundamental difference between the culture of civilization and those of indigenous peoples is a mentality of exploitation vs one of gratitude. Derrick Jensen defines sustainability as giving back more than you take, and Kimmerer richly depicts a worldview in which that ethic is held first and foremost, even (or especially) when harvesting the lives of others. Her multiple detailed accounts, backed by science, of human interactions with other species to the benefit of all rebut the belief that humans are intrinsically destructive. We have the potential ― indeed, the responsibility ― to take up a supportive role in the web of life.

Building on this revelation, Braiding Sweetgrass challenges the reader to consider how an individual, or a culture, can become indigenous to place. With the vast majority of the earth under siege by settler cultures with a domination mindset, this is an urgent task. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), collapse will render industrialism and globalization infeasible, reigning in civilization’s ecocide. But local cultures unable to develop reciprocal relationships with their landbases are doomed to continue the destruction, even if at a smaller scale.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that everyone has gifts. Birds have the gift of song, stars the gift of shining. But with each gift comes a responsibility to use it in the service of life. Birds have a responsibility to greet the day with music, stars to guide night travelers. What gifts do humans have, and what responsibilities? And more personally: as Carolyn Raffensperger asks, “What are the largest, most pressing problems that you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe?” With the world at stake, contemplate the question. Find your answer. Then take action.

Braiding Sweetgrass is available as a paperback, ebook, and audio book.

Derrick interviewed Robin Wall Kimmerer for the September 25, 2016 episode of Resistance Radio. Readers who enjoy Braiding Sweetgrass will probably also enjoy Derrick’s The Myth of Human Supremacy, and vice versa.

Standing on Sacred Ground film series

Deep Green Resistance stands with indigenous peoples in defense of their land, for both ethical and practical reasons. It’s simply the right thing to do when people are threatened with theft of their traditional land base. It’s also a highly effective way to preserve what’s left of biodiversity and a living planet. Like any long-term member of a community, humans who know they depend on their land for sustenance and life foster its health to the benefit of everyone there.

The World Bank calculates that although indigenous people comprise just 4% of the global human population and live on just 12% of the land surface, their territory encompasses 80% of planetary biodiversity. Clearly they’re doing a better job of fostering life than has any civilized culture. We can be most strategic in supporting these people in protection of this remaining biodiversity on their traditional lands.

The film series Standing on Sacred Ground explores these dynamics and looks at specific cultures and places in 4 DVDs. You can see multiple excerpts on Youtube, including “Sacred Sites and Biodiversity” featuring clips from Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Ethiopia.

Solidarity Needed with Winnemam Wintu in California

Call for solidarity in defense of Winnemem Wintu Coming of Age Ceremony

The Winnemem Wintu are a salmon and middle water people living on what is left of their ancestral lands from Mt. Shasta down the McCloud River watershed in California. They have issued a request for solidarity in defense of a sacred Coming of Age Ceremony for young Winnemem Wintu women. This Ceremony is traditionally held on a 400-yard section of the McCloud, and the Tribe has called for closure of this section during the four-day ceremony from June 29th-July 3rd.

Of course, the Forest Service has denied the Tribe’s demand for a closure of the area during a popular tourist weekend. Last year the agency imposed a voluntary closure in which the Winnemem Wintu could request that boaters stay out of the area, but could not force them. In past years the Ceremony has been interrupted by drunken boaters, a constant stream of loud engines, racial slurs, and even indecent exposure by a woman in a passing boat. The Ceremony includes an important element in which the young women swim across the river. With the constant boat traffic, this action puts participants in direct physical danger.

“We have been backed into a corner with no other choice. We should be preparing for Marisa [Sisk]’s ceremony, setting down prayers, making regalia, getting the dance grounds ready, making sure it happens in a good way,” said Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and chief. “But instead we have to fight simply to protect our young women from drunken harassment.”

The Winnemem Wintu are requesting help to blockade the river and prevent intrusive disruptions of this important Ceremony. Experienced kayakers are especially needed. Help is also need to publicize these violations through phone, networking, media, social media, and letters of protest sent to the regional Forest Service office. (See contact info below for the office’s address)

For anyone considering participation in this blockade, there are some important things to think about. First and foremost, this is an act of solidarity. This is not an invitation to a sacred ceremony or a protest. Individuals interested in participating should be fully self-sufficient with provisions, tents, and other camping equipment.

A supporter of DGR who works in solidarity with Indigenous struggles offers some insight on Indigenous solidarity in general:

“Ask the Winnemem Wintu and trusted supporters on-site where help from non-Natives is appropriate and needed.

From personal experience as a non-Native doing support work, I would only bring other non-Natives if they are known to be respectful of boundaries, and not doing this work as a way to steal Indigenous Knowledge or gain access to ceremony. Undoubtedly some of those sorts will turn up, and I think it’s our job as non-native allies to run interference and keep any disruption, even “well-intentioned” disruption, away from the ceremonies.

I know some AIMsters who blockaded the river for the last ceremony. They were not there to participate in ceremony, but to do support. So they set up their own camp and organized patrols on the water and shores. They kept a boundary around any ceremonial activity, they worked in the kitchens, they made sure the Winnemem Wintu folks had the space to do their thing. From what I saw from my friends’ photos, there’s a campground there and it makes sense to have a series of interconnected camps like affinity groups.

This type of protection of ceremony is similar to what some of my male friends have done to protect women’s ceremonies – they have stood just out of earshot (though a yell could reach them), turned their backs so they don’t witness anything private, and kept other men from coming into the women’s space.”

Watch a video of the intrusive disturbance of a previous Ceremony

Those interested in protecting this Ceremony please contact: winnememwintutribe[at]gmail[dot]com

To send letters or make phone calls in protest of the Forest Service’s inaction:

Email Attorney General Kamala Harris:

Email Assistant AG Kristian Whitten: (civil rights violations)

Governor’s twitter: @JerryBrownGov

Email Randy Moore, Regional Forest Director:
Snail Mail: 1323 Club Drive, Vallejo, CA 94592
Call: 707-562-8737

The Tribe requests that messages are respectful and peaceful

Media inquiries, please contact:
Jeanne France, Media Relations: 530-472-1050
Michael Preston, Media Relations: 510-926-1513

Learn more about the Winnemem Wintu
Learn more about the Ceremony
Press Coverage of the Winnemam Wintu War Dance in protest of the Forest Service’s inaction:
San Francisco Chronicle