Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer describes a man masterfully peeling long, thin strips of wood from a log using an axe. She is attending a class taught by John Pigeon, a Potawatomi basket maker who is showing them how to make traditional black ash baskets. Many members of the Pigeon family are expert basket makers, and their creations can be found in museums as well as here, at the annual Potawatomi Gathering of Nations. John doesn’t just teach how to weave the baskets, but how to make them from scratch, starting with the living black ash tree.
This chapter focuses on Robin’s experience taking a class with John Pigeon, learning a traditional practice of basket making as part of her goal of reconnecting with her Potawatomi heritage. As the rest of John’s lesson will show, this is not just about how to make a craft but about building a personal relationship with a tree.
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Black ash trees like swampy ground, Kimmerer explains, and the traditional basket makers patiently seek the perfect tree, which should be straight and healthy. Each growth ring of the tree is affected by the year in which it forms—and here Kimmerer describes why the rings form at all—and the layers of individual rings form the strips of material for the basket.
Kimmerer continues the interwoven braid of the narrative, here giving scientific knowledge about the ash tree used for the baskets.
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Recognizing the trees as individuals and “nonhuman forest [people],” John takes his time examining the trees and finally decides on one that he wants to cut down. He doesn’t immediately begin sawing, however—first he has a conversation with the tree, asking its permission to be harvested. If he notices something off about his interaction with the tree, he will assume the answer is no, and he will find a different tree. If the answer is yes, he says a prayer, offers some tobacco, and then cuts down the tree.
John recognizes the animacy in non-human beings and treats them as such, worthy of being addressed and respected as much as any fellow person. He also tries to have a kind of communication with the trees, recognizing when they are reluctant to be harvested. When he does find one to harvest, he gives an offering of gratitude with the tobacco in appreciation of the tree’s gift.
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To create the strips, or “splints,” for the basket, John pounds along the log with the back of his ax, then splits it at a ring and peels off the strip of wood, which usually contains at least one growth ring. As he peels off more and more, he reminds his students that the pile of wood splints contains the tree’s entire life, year by year. John then splits the wider strips with his pocketknife and a homemade device called a splitter. Robin tries to emulate him, but she finds that it is much harder than he makes it look. John observes his students as they work, explaining that the ash tree is a good teacher, and that humans can find balance within themselves by working to split the wood. John then shows them how to smooth the wood’s surface with a very sharp knife.
The tree’s rings are physical manifestations of a year’s passage, so using individual rings to weave the basket is like weaving with the years of the tree’s life. Just as Robin has learned in her teaching, John knows that the best teacher for this kind of lesson is the plant itself. Another important aspect of the work here is mindfulness, offering one’s patient attention as a kind of gratitude for the gift of the ash tree’s life.
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Basket-making has been the Pigeon family livelihood for a long time, and John comments on how his mother used to chastise him whenever he would slip up and ruin a splint. He says that some customers balk at the ash baskets’ high prices, but that with all the work that goes into finding the tree and making the splints even before weaving, they are priced barely above minimum wage.
This is one roadblock to shifting away from a capitalist economy—the prices we are used to paying for goods are based on exploitation. Real mindful and sustainable work like this necessarily means that goods will cost more, making it more difficult to “vote with one’s wallet.”
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Having finished shaping the splints, the students are now ready to start weaving, but first John stops them and reminds them that even the discarded wood shavings around them represent a tree’s long and full life. The tree has honored them by giving them its life, he says, so they must show it their respect and not waste any part of it. He then shows them how to sort the debris to be used as material for other baskets or for tinder. Kimmerer comments on how disconnected most modern people are from the fact that “just about everything we use is the result of another’s life.” Like the splints of ash, a regular piece of paper also represents a tree’s life, yet we easily throw away paper all the time.
At every stage of the process, John reminds his students to be mindful and respectful of the tree’s gift of its life. This also means making practical use of all the parts of the tree, so that none of it is wasted—which in itself would imply that it was waste, or worthless. Kimmerer uses this to remind the reader how they can take this lesson into their own lives, first by being aware of the living things that have given their lives for us to use. This sense of awareness then leads to less mindless consumption: when you respect the gift, you can’t treat it as waste and so are more likely to be careful with it.
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Kimmerer then describes a study she did with one of her graduate students, counting and measuring black ash tree populations in different areas. Most forests had only seedlings or old, mature trees, and nothing in between. In forests that were harvested by traditional basket makers, however, the trees were diverse in age and size. Having the trees occasionally cut down opened up gaps in the foliage for new growth to flourish. The ash trees and the basket makers had formed a symbiotic relationship.
The basket makers’ relationship with the forest is a contrast to Robin’s earlier students who had never imagined people having a positive relationship with the land. Humans don’t always have to be negative forces destroying the environment; we can also live symbiotically with it like these basket makers, such that both humans and the land flourish.
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While traditional Indigenous basket making is having a revival across the country, the black ash trees themselves are now under attack from a new threat: emerald ash borer beetles. John Pigeon hands out pamphlets to the students showing a picture of the insect, which was first introduced from China and is fatal to the black ashes. He reminds the students that they have a responsibility to take care of the trees because the trees take care of them by giving their wood to make the baskets. Kimmerer then describes several Indigenous-led efforts to protect black ash populations and to plant new seedlings. “It is an honor to be the guardian of another species,” she says, and the black ash baskets are reminders of both the gifts that the land gives us and the responsibility that comes with them.
Along with the gift of gratitude, actively caring for the ash trees is another way that the basket makers can practice reciprocity with the trees that give their lives to their art. The invasive beetle is also a result of human activity, so it is even more our responsibility to try and undo the damage that we have caused and protect future generations of trees. Kimmerer reminds the reader once more that the gifts come with responsibilities.
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Returning to the basket-making class, John shows his students how to assemble the basket’s bottom, explaining how the crossed strips represent the balance of the four cardinal directions, forming a strong foundation to build on. Once the framework is formed, John tells his students to let their creativity flow in the weaving process. They have the responsibility to create something beautiful to honor the tree that gave its life for them, he says. Kimmerer pauses to comment that this idea could relate to writing on paper as well—she already feels a responsibility to write as a way of sharing her own gifts with the world, but now she thinks about her responsibility to the tree that formed the physical paper she’s writing on as well.
Another part of reciprocity with the tree is using it to make something beautiful, so that the tree’s sacrifice is worthwhile. Kimmerer’s personal aside then shows how she has tried to apply this practice into her own art, and how readers might as well. This is another example of mindfulness changing how we interact with an object: being aware of the living being that the paper comes from makes us weigh what we write upon it more carefully.
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Kimmerer describes the act of weaving the basket, which requires keeping everything balanced in order to maintain its form. She sees reciprocity in the “give and take” of tension in this process. There are three rows involved in making the basket, and she compares these rows to acts of caring for and protecting the land itself. The first row is the plenty of nature, the second row is made up of humanity’s material needs, and the third row is respect and reciprocity between people and land.
This art is presented as similar to the practice of braiding sweetgrass: making something from the earth and mindfully working with it to appreciate the gift. Even within the work itself Kimmerer finds the plant teaching her life lessons: we do have material needs and the earth is generous, but for those two realities to interact in a healthy way requires respect and reciprocity on our part.
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Some children stop by to watch the students weaving, and John Pigeon deftly constructs some small horses for them out of the leftover ash shavings. When everyone is done with their basket, John tells them that they should sign their work and take pride in what they have created. Each basket is different, but they all come from the same tree, and they are all beautiful. At the powwow later that night, Robin notices how the dancers move together as if weaving a basket with their bodies.
John continues to use all the parts of the tree, wasting none of the gift. Kimmerer continues to see the weaving motion of the basket making in our relationship to the earth, and then repeated in the traditional dance, all of it reinforcing the lesson for her.
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Now back at her house, which contains many Pigeon baskets, Kimmerer considers what John taught her and tries to see the life in all the everyday objects around her: the tree in her tissue, the algae in her toothpaste, the metal in her lamp. She finds that she cannot find the thread of life in anything plastic, however, as it just seems too far “removed from the natural world” for her to relate to without some mental gymnastics. She recognizes that we can’t always maintain this kind of constant awareness, but says that it is important to remember our connections to all the lives around us, and the responsibility and respect that we owe them for their gift.
In this important passage Kimmerer again gives the reader a practical way to apply the lessons that she is passing on: simply try to be aware of the living things that so many of our possessions are sourced in. Being mindful of these gifts tends to lead us to treat them with more respect and care, and also to consume less of them, because people tend to be less callously greedy when it comes to fellow beings.
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