Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One day when Robin’s daughters are still young and living at home, one of their teachers calls to say that Robin’s daughter (it’s not stated whether Linden or Larkin) has started quietly refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in class. Robin remembers her own school days and being forced to say those words, recognizing even then that “liberty and justice for all” was far from her country’s truth. She questions her daughter about this when she gets home, and the girl says that she won’t “stand there and lie” anymore. She is used to different rituals, like Robin’s father pouring out the coffee grounds, or Robin’s sunrise ceremony of gratitude.
Considering the tragic past and present of Indigenous Americans in relation to the state, it makes sense that anyone with Native heritage might be reluctant to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. Robin has clearly instilled in her daughters the importance of ritual, but they also know that rituals have meaning, and if they don’t support the meaning then they won’t perform the ritual. They can get behind gratitude to the earth, but not allegiance to an invasive state.
Themes
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At the school on the nearby Onondaga Nation reserve, the school week begins with the “Thanksgiving Address,” also known as the “Words That Come Before All Else”—not the American Pledge of Allegiance. All the students gather together in the atrium and the different grades take turns delivering the recitation. Today the third graders lead the ritual, which Kimmerer quotes. The first two sections involve giving thanks to each other as people and to Mother Earth, both ending with “Now our minds are one.” Kimmerer notes that the Onondaga Nation is outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S., and that the Thanksgiving Address is not a pledge or a prayer, but something more complex.
As an alternative to the American Pledge of Allegiance, Kimmerer invites readers to consider a “pledge” that was here before the first colonizers arrived in America: the Thanksgiving Address. Just like languages and creation myths, rituals like reciting a common creed or pledge together are important aspects of a culture, both shaping it and being shaped by it. The differences between the Pledge of Allegiance and the Thanksgiving Address thus show another contrast between Indigenous culture and colonizer culture in America.
Themes
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The children continue the Address, thanking the waters of the world, the fish, the plants, and the berries, each time ending with “Now our minds are one.” Kimmerer comments that the Address is primarily a statement of gratitude, but it is also a kind of “scientific inventory of the natural world.” Next the children thank the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) and other food plants, the “Medicine Herbs of the world,” and the trees. Kimmerer interjects again to say that the Address takes a long time to recite, and whenever it’s delivered at gatherings with non-Native people, she always notices them fidgeting and looking impatient. She reminds the reader that the Address’s length only means that we have so very much to be thankful for.
The Thanksgiving Address is an important aspect of the Indigenous culture of gratitude for the natural world, and it connects to many themes that Kimmerer has already explored in the book, such as seeing the world as a place of gifts and cultivating a sense of responsibility to respect those gifts. Most non-Native people are not used to this kind of “pledge,” she notes, perhaps because this inventory of gratitude comes with its own sense of responsibility to the natural world—something a capitalist economy doesn’t encourage.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Listening to the Thanksgiving Address makes one feel wealthy, Kimmerer says, and expressing gratitude for the earth’s plenty is actually a radical idea in a consumer-driven society. Capitalism thrives on the idea of scarcity, that people always need to be buying and consuming more to achieve satisfaction, so being grateful for what one has and not asking for more goes against such an idea. “Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness,” she writes.
This important passage emphasizes the idea that perceiving something as a gift rather than a commodity makes one appreciate it more and feel wealthier to have a connection to it. The market economy requires scarcity and even creates artificial scarcity to function, but the gift economy thrives on the idea of fullness and gratitude. This is another example of a small personal action that one can take to change the world for the better: simply express one’s gratitude for what the earth has given.
Themes
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The Address continues, thanking the animals, the birds, and the Four Winds. A clan mother and teacher at the Onondaga Nation School has told Kimmerer that the Thanksgiving Address is also a reminder that human beings are not at the center of the universe, but are instead just another part of a larger whole. Kimmerer again remembers her own childhood reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which asks for loyalty to a flag rather than to the land itself. She wonders what it would be like to declare a pledge of “interdependence” to the “democracy of species.” She feels that the Thanksgiving Address is an important aspect of such a culture of gratitude.
Kimmerer again emphasizes the importance of the idea that human beings are not separate from or above the rest of creation, but part of a system of interdependence. We are just one voice in a “democracy of species”—a concept Kimmerer returns to throughout Braiding Sweetgrass. This passage also notes that the Pledge of Allegiance asks loyalty only to a flag—an idea of a country—rather than the physical country itself and all of its inhabitants. This makes sense for an American settler culture that Kimmerer sees as disconnected from the land—and this disconnection allows the market economies that exploit the earth to flourish.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Kimmerer explains how the Address has also helped the Haudenosaunee people in diplomacy. By listing all of the things that we can all give thanks to and ending each section with “now our minds are one,” the Address breaks down the divisions between people and helps them to see the bigger picture. Among the Haudenosaunee, decisions are not made by a majority vote, but only “when our minds are one.” Kimmerer wonders what would happen if more contemporary leaders tried giving thanks and finding common ground before negotiating or arguing.
This is another example of how the ritual reflects the culture, as the Haudenosaunee’s culture of gratitude leads to a humbler and more democratic process than the U.S. government’s current system of contentious partisanship (at least in Kimmerer’s description).
Themes
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Interspersed with more sections of the Address giving thanks for the sun, moon, stars, and the Creator, or Great Spirit, Kimmerer points out another consequence of the Address—the “roll call of gifts” makes us question the state of the world as it is now, and if the different parts of the world are functioning as they should.
Once again, reflecting on the natural world as a place of gifts means that we also have responsibilities in accepting those gifts. The gift creates a relationship, and the relationship requires that we take care of the world that is so generous to us.
Themes
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Altogether, the Address acts like a “Bill of Responsibilities” (as opposed to a Bill of Rights) and a creed for a culture of gratitude. “Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity,” Kimmerer says, as no one member exists alone or above the rest, but each has a duty to the others. All the beings mentioned in the Address have a duty, and she wonders what gift humanity has to offer. The answer might be gratitude itself, which sets in motion cycles of reciprocity, of gifts and thanksgiving.
Kimmerer once more contrasts the ideas of the Thanksgiving Address with the United States government. The “Bill of Responsibilities” upholds a culture of gratitude and responsibility to the world around us, rather than a sense that we as human beings should have rights and no one else. Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer considers tangible ways that we can give back to the earth and practice reciprocity, and one that she keeps coming back to is consistently offering our gratitude.
Themes
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Kimmerer says that she was initially cautious about publishing the words of the Thanksgiving Address in her book, but an elder assured her that the Haudenosaunee want everyone to know about the Address—“If they’d understood the Thanksgiving [five hundred years ago], we wouldn’t be in this mess,” he says. The Address has indeed been published worldwide and translated into many languages, but it is not well-known in the United States itself. Kimmerer says that she means no disrespect for U.S. veterans, but she also hopes for liberty and justice for all, not just one country or even one species. She ends the chapter with the conclusion of the address and her own wish that one day the land will be thankful for humans in return.
Kimmerer has a sense of the Thanksgiving Address as something sacred, not to be appropriated by colonist culture, but she also wants to use it as a teaching tool to encourage her readers to practice gratitude, reemphasizing that a culture of gratitude would have avoided the current environmental “mess” that we’re in. While she is very critical (for good reason) of the U.S. government, Kimmerer is respectful to individuals who do feel patriotic towards America, but at the same time she encourages them to cultivate a sense of allegiance to the land itself and to the wellbeing of their fellow living things.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon