‘Braiding Sweetgrass’

  • “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmer. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 4/2/2020 8:33:59 AM
Modified: 4/2/2020 8:33:49 AM

Editor’s note: “Braiding Sweetgrass” is currently the book of choice for an ongoing community reading initiative organized by a coalition of local libraries. Contact your local library for more information and to access a copy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a poetic writer, is a prophet for our times. She comes from two cultures: She is indigenous, as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and is also a botanist teaching in the New York State University system. She deeply values both cultures.

In her second book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Kimmer contrasts her life as a young indigenous person with western scientific ways of thinking. She looks at the ways she can hold both, even though they are so often in conflict. In readable, short-story chapters, she describes familiar relationships, exploring topics like living with an aging neighbor; her relationship with her children, describing so beautifully the ways an indigenous school system guides children to embrace respect, gratefulness, ceremony and a love of Mother Earth. She also writes about her life as a teacher of young adults who are exploring the use of scientific methods, as well as about the practical experience of traditional indigenous work — planting, harvesting, making baskets and building shelters; and teaching methods that spark discovery, self-confidence, touching the heart and soul.

The book is about relationships between indigenous people and plants, animals, water, air and stone — a sacred, natural world. It is a study in contrast: How do we learn the language of plants? How does language frame our ways of thinking?

She explores aspects of an indigenous “honorable harvest.” Meanwhile, she reminds us of a sacred pact: from every living thing, along with the “gifts” we receive, come “responsibilities.” Has the non-indigenous world made a religion of extracting profit?

Native ceremonial life is constantly used to remind people never to take too much and to help the first and the strongest survive and thrive in order to foster the strength of a whole. Also stressed is the importance of community celebration in order to foster learning, generosity and gratefulness through storytelling, music and dance. Celebrations are reminders of our collective responsibilities, an antidote to possessiveness by fostering generosity, sustaining the sense of community solidarity, and, thus, the deeper satisfactions of the soul.

Kimmerer does not avoid the dark side. She shows readers how hunger or pain can stalk our deep love of community and then turn it upside down. She cautions that in the 21st century we can choose which way go: either the broad road of “business as usual” or the critically important but shadowy “road less traveled.”

For those interested, in addition to the ongoing community reading of “Braiding Sweetgrass” (contact an area library for more information on that), Emergence Magazine is hosting a five-week online study group on the book. During the last week, Robin Wall Kimmerer will speak. Visit emergencemagazine.org/community/#nature-writing-course for more information. The book is available on audiobook and ebook via a variety of book outlets.

Pam Kelly is a former board member of the The Nolumbeka Project, nolumbekaproject.org, and a member of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist organization.

Other ways to connect

Here in the Pioneer Valley, our home is situated along the Connecticut River, a watery pathway traversed by indigenous people for 10,000 years. Indigenous travelers used the river as a guide on their journey to the Pocumtuck settlement in Greenfield and beyond. But in the brutal King Phillip’s War of 1676, the Pocumtuck were dissolved into other tribes. Many were sold into slavery. For those interested, their ancestral heritage is being explored through programs offered by the Nolumbeka Project. Stay tuned, and visit nolumbekaproject.org for more information.

River Stories: With one program a month during 2020, modern-day tribal speakers are offering a gift — a deeper understanding of this cultural heritage and our collective history, gifts and responsibilities. Co-sponsored by our own Greenfield Community College in addition to many other sponsors, programs are currently scheduled along the river from Thetford, Vt. (Dartmouth College) to Essex Museum, Conn., with a major program in the middle (at the end of August), The Pocumtuck Homelands Festival at Unity Park in Turners Falls. Due to the coronavirus, if we can’t hold the scheduled public gatherings, we will find a way to broadcast them. Please visit the organization’s website and subscribe to email updates for more.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy