The narrative describes a creation story: Skywoman falls through a hole in the Skyworld and plummets downwards. Below her is only darkness and water, but there are also animals living there who see Skywoman falling. Geese fly up to catch her, and then an enormous turtle offers its shell as land for her to step onto. Several water creatures dive deep in search of mud to make land, but none can find any. Finally Muskrat tries, and he drowns in his attempt—but when his body floats to the surface, he is clutching a handful of mud. Skywoman then spreads this mud over Turtle’s back and dances and sings over it as the earth grows. This, Kimmerer says, is “Turtle Island, our home.”
Here Kimmerer retells a version of the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) Creation Myth. What’s important to note about this story is that the animals immediately move to help save Skywoman, even offering up their own lives to do so, and that together she and the animals bring their own new home into being. Turtle Island is then another name for North America. Notably, because it is seen as a living animal—a turtle—the continent itself has a kind of personhood that must be respected.
Skywoman then opens a bundle that she was holding when she fell: it’s full of plants and seeds. She spreads these over the earth, and they flourish. Sweetgrass is the first plant to grow on Turtle Island, and Kimmerer explains that it is still an important ceremonial plant for many Indigenous cultures. She compares the traditional braiding of sweetgrass to tenderly braiding the “flowing hair of Mother Earth” in an act of gratitude and care.
After partially creating the land itself, Skywoman’s first act is to plant a garden of plenty to support all living things. Braiding sweetgrass is not only a practice of communing with other people, but also with the earth itself. Giving back to the earth in reciprocity for all its gifts is a major theme of the book, and, for Kimmerer, braiding Mother Earth’s hair is one way that we can show our gratitude.
Kimmerer says that she has a painting of Skywoman hanging in her laboratory. She is a professor of botany and ecology, and one day in her General Ecology class she gives her students a survey about their perception of relations between human beings and the environment. On average, the students respond that they do not know about any positive interactions between people and the land. This is shocking to Kimmerer, and she wonders how we can work towards a more sustainable world when most people cannot even imagine that humans and the earth can be generous and beneficial to each other.
Kimmerer’s conversation with her students here leads her to the goal that she laid out in the preface: to change her readers’ sense of relationship to the land. As shown here, even the contemporary environmental movement is mostly about mitigating the negative effects of humanity on nature—that is, seeing human beings as wholly disconnected from other lives and harmful to them—rather than seeking out positive ways that humans can interact with the earth. The Haudenosaunee painting hanging in Kimmerer’s laboratory also highlights the contradiction within herself and within the book. She is both a plant scientist and a person with Indigenous heritage (although she is not Haudenosaunee, and her own Potawatomi people have different creation myths), who in her work mixes Indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge. Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass she will try to show that these worldviews are not necessarily contradictory.
Kimmerer compares the story of Skywoman to another creation myth: Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. While Skywoman created a garden with the help of the animals, Eve was banished from her garden for eating its fruit and sent out into a harsh world, which she was then instructed to “subdue.” These stories represent two fundamentally different worldviews: one is of a generous, bountiful world that is humanity’s home, and the other is of an “alien land” that humans must endure before they reach their true home in heaven. When the people of Skywoman and the people of Eve finally met, these worldviews clashed, and “the land around us bears the scars of that meeting.”
This insightful passage shows how creation myths can shape the worldviews of their respective cultures. Indigenous American culture sees the world as a homeland full of other beings of equal value and full of wisdom to be learned from, while Judeo-Christian culture sees the world as a temporary stopping place to be subdued, owned, and used. Eve’s culture has clearly become the dominant one in the modern world, resulting in our current commodification of the earth and increasing environmental disasters.
Kimmerer explains that the Skywoman story is part of a group of teachings called “the Original Instructions.” These are not rigid rules, but more like ethical measures for caring for the world and each other. Kimmerer muses on the Skywoman story again—how it is essentially about a world that gives gifts to humanity, and how humanity might give something back in return—and wonders how it might apply to the modern world. She also notes that Skywoman was an immigrant, falling from the Skyworld down to earth. Kimmerer herself comes from “Skywoman’s people,” but she also has European immigrants as her ancestors.
Kimmerer again uses Skywoman’s story to introduce some of the main themes of the book to follow, here the idea of the world as a place of gifts to be received and given in return, as well as what it means to be Indigenous versus an immigrant. Skywoman was originally an immigrant, but she literally made the earth her home, and so all of her offspring and descendants have since been considered Indigenous to Turtle Island.
Skywoman was also pregnant when she fell to earth, so she worked to make the world flourish for the sake of her future children: “the original immigrant became Indigenous” by giving back and tending to the land that also provided for her. This is what becoming Indigenous to a place means, Kimmerer states: “living as if your children’s future mattered” and depended on the land.
Kimmerer will explore this idea in more depth later on, but here she briefly describes how one might “become Indigenous to a place”—by developing a personal relationship with the land and working to make it a home for one’s descendants.
Kimmerer again returns to the story of Eve being exiled from Eden. The results of that sense of exile broke the land itself but also people’s relationship to the land. While the people of Eve consider humans to be at the top of the hierarchy of earthly creation, in Indigenous cultures humans are called “the younger brothers of Creation,” meaning that we should look to the other inhabitants of the land—plants and animals—for guidance about how best to live. Kimmerer concludes by imagining that the seeds that Skywoman scattered across Turtle Island were also stories, and she invites the reader to listen with her.
An important aspect of these creation myths is how their respective cultures see humanity in relationship to other living things. Even though in the Adam and Eve myth humanity is also the last being to be created by God, humans were then given dominion over all other life and so see themselves at the top of the hierarchy of species. Indigenous American culture, however, looks to animals and plants as wise teachers and subjects in their own right, rather than objects to be owned and used. Kimmerer here connects the idea of stories to the image of seeds, emphasizing that both can be spread and are able to flourish on their own.