Braiding Sweetgrass

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

In the early pages of this collection, we hear the story of Skywoman, who is said to have fallen to the earth with bundles of plants and fruits and seeds, which she sowed in the ground. Kimmerer notes how Skywoman’s story places humans in a different relationship to the world when compared to the Christian creation story: in one, people are taught to embrace the living world; in the other, they are banished from it. Kimmerer never expresses contempt, but she spares no criticism for the latter world view, and each essay that follows is a a full-throated declaration of a democracy of species—with humans as the minority voice. As the book nears its conclusion, she lets her fear—which simmers through previous chapters—come to a boil, and it’s then that you wonder alongside her whether we have a way off the terrible path that fossil capitalism lays before us. Optimism is, as ever, in short supply. But hope is a discipline, and Kimmerer shows how the practice is itself a gift.

Reading notes

Becoming naturalized

In the story shared by the original peoples of the Great Lakes, Skywoman falls to the earth, flowers and seeds grasped in her hands, a child growing in her belly. She finds a world of water, and geese and beavers and turtles and loons and others all arrive to greet her. A turtle dives into the depths and raises up mud which is placed on his shell and becomes the beginning of the land. Skywoman plants her seeds in that mud, and it turns green and lush, feeding both her and the animals. Kimmerer writes:

It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became Indigenous.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, page 9

Kimmerer first asks how we could all become Indigenous—but then she questions that framing. Being Indigenous is a birthright, not something you can claim or acquire. But perhaps there is another way to right one’s relationship to a place, without appropriation. Instead of becoming Indigenous, could we become naturalized? Kimmerer continues:

Being naturalized to a place means to live as if if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, page 215

In most civic naturalization processes, an applicant has to learn the stories of the new country in order to become a citizen. In Kimmerer’s framing, we would need to learn the stories of the original peoples—not only the stories themselves, but the instructions they carry for being in right relationship with the earth—and learn to abide by them. Perhaps in that model, there is a path to restoration that honors Indigenous wisdom while acknowledging our own story of immigration.