Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter is divided into sections as if it were a scientific article. The “Introduction” briefly describes the aroma of sweetgrass in the wild. “Literature Review” then follows Lena, a Potawatomi elder who is an expert gatherer of sweetgrass. As she wanders the meadow with Kimmerer, she looks for certain glossy plants that seem to shine as if they want to be found and picked. Whenever she picks the sweetgrass, she first leaves an offering of some tobacco and says a few words. “It would be rude not to ask first,” she tells Kimmerer.
This chapter returns to the relationship between science and traditional wisdom, with the narrative’s very form reflecting that relationship. Kimmerer has arranged the chapter into sections like a scientific article, even while the content within this rigid structure consists of a more fluid narrative. Lena emphasizes how important it is to treat the living thing that one is harvesting with respect, asking its permission and leaving an offering of gratitude for its gift.
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Lena explains that she was always taught to never pick more than half of the plants, and sometimes she doesn’t harvest at all, but only checks on the sweetgrass. She repeats her grandmother’s teaching that “If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish.” As they leave the meadow, Lena leaves a mark to show other sweetgrass pickers that she has already been there, so they don’t pick any more plants. She complains about some pickers who pull up the roots along with the grass, and Kimmerer notes that she has been with people who did that too—but they also only took half and left gifts of tobacco.
Though it precedes the section of the same name, this is essentially the hypothesis of the study to follow: “if we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish.” The background here is that there are two main traditional methods of harvesting sweetgrass—pinching off the grass above the roots vs. pulling up the roots along with the grass. Both methods are centered around gratitude and respect for the plant, but they differ in the practice of harvesting.
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In the next section, “Hypothesis,” Kimmerer explains that sweetgrass has been disappearing from its usual habitat, so the basket makers wanted to know if these different ways of harvesting might be the cause. Kimmerer was initially reluctant to investigate, as she sees sweetgrass as a gift, not the subject of a scientific experiment. She doesn’t want to force the “teachings of grass” to fit the rigid requirements of scientific thinking and writing—and here she references the sections into which she has divided the chapter itself. At the same time, she feels a responsibility to sweetgrass. She decides to go forward with an experiment, but she knows that it must speak the language of scientists if it is to be accepted by them. She proposes her idea as a thesis project to her grad student Laurie, who accepts.
The impetus for this experiment is the decline in sweetgrass populations, as well as Kimmerer’s desire to reconcile science with Indigenous wisdom in her own teaching and writing. She doesn’t want to make sweetgrass less sacred or less of a gift by studying it as an experimental subject, but she also wants to protect it—and at this point, this study seems to be the best way to do that. The language of science referenced here relates to the way that Kimmerer has structured the chapter itself. Laurie is the one who will actually perform the experiment, assisted and advised by Robin.
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The next section, “Methods,” begins with Robin introducing Laurie to Sweetgrass in the wild and familiarizing her with its smell and appearance. They then design experiments to compare the two harvesting methods that the basket makers use: pinching the grass off above the roots, or pulling the whole plant up. Kimmerer notes that she sees experiments in botany as “conversation[s] with plants.” She would never claim to really “discover” anything as the result of these experiments—which she compares to Christopher Columbus “discovering” America—because “experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating the knowledge of other beings.”
Robin and Laurie are performing a science experiment, but also trying to form a relationship with the plant: the experiment is an extended conversation with sweetgrass. To do this Laurie first familiarizes herself with sweetgrass, as one would do at the start of any relationship. Kimmerer associates modern science with Western colonialism through her Columbus analogy, connecting the Eurocentric worldview of the colonizers to the hierarchical scientific idea that only humans have animacy and therefore value. In contrast to this, Kimmerer advocates for a humbler kind of science, one that acknowledges both the value and the wisdom of nonhuman beings.
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Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
Kimmerer says that her academic colleagues might not think of people like Lena as scientists, but her process of harvesting half the sweetgrass and observing the long-term results seems very scientific to her. In producing her own experiment, Laurie has to present her thesis idea to a committee of faculty members. She makes her case, which essentially hinges on a theory based in Indigenous wisdom: that “if we use a plant respectfully, it will flourish.”
Another bridge between traditional wisdom and science is that much traditional wisdom already is science—the result of centuries of trial and error to come to the best way of acting, even if this is explained through other-than-scientific methods or as having spiritual or non-scientific reasons. Lena’s statement here is the real “hypothesis” for Laurie’s study, though it’s one that has already been tested for centuries.
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Laurie remains calm and defends herself, but later she bursts into tears. Robin remembers doing the same thing herself, thinking back to all the condescension she has endured over the years as a woman scientist, and even more so as one interested in traditional wisdom. She recognizes that scientists like the dean have been conditioned to be skeptical of anything that doesn’t come with extensive quantitative data, and that this combines with the general assumption that “science has cornered the market on truth.” Nevertheless, she and Laurie decide to press on with their sweetgrass experiment.
The academic authorities have a limited idea of what constitutes science, and they are unwilling to consider other modes of knowledge. This is exacerbated by the fact that Western science is linked to the ruling culture of patriarchal European colonization, further marginalizing women and Indigenous ways of thinking that go against the status quo. Kimmerer has experienced this many times in her own life, starting with her adviser in “Asters and Goldenrod,” and she hates to see Laurie having to go through it as well—even as a white woman in a supposedly more progressive era.
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First they choose several sweetgrass stands to observe, and Laurie takes a census of every plant. For the experiment, they harvest one group by pinching the plants off at the stem, a second by pulling the plant up by the roots, and a third patch is left untouched as a control group. Laurie recognizes that she’s not really replicating the traditional harvest, as she doesn’t speak to the plants or make an offering, but she is okay with this—she feels that such a relationship cannot be measured by a scientific experiment, and also that she as a non-Indigenous person isn’t “qualified to speak to sweetgrass.”
Robin and Laurie try to mix Indigenous wisdom with science in designing this experiment, pushing at the limits of both to gain a fuller understanding of sweetgrass. Importantly, Laurie recognizes that as a white woman she cannot replicate and is not even qualified to replicate the real Indigenous relationship with the plant.
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Despite trying to remain scientifically objective in this way, Laurie admits later that she did develop a real fondness and respect for the sweetgrass that she worked with. The experiment goes on for two years, with Laurie charting and measuring every plant in the three groups, sometimes with the help of some student interns.
Once again, the plant acts as its own animate subject, teaching Laurie as she works with it and comes to think of it as a fellow being rather than an object to be experimented on.
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The next section is titled “Results.” By now Laurie is pregnant with her first child, but she continues at her work of harvesting and measuring the sweetgrass. As the pregnancy progresses, she feels that her time with the sweetgrass is good for the baby, and she also gains more and more respect for the traditional knowledge of the harvesters that she talks and works with. The experiment comes to a close soon after the baby is born. Laurie compiles the data and examines it closely, but the results are also clear to see with the naked eye: the harvested sweetgrass stands look healthy and glossy, while the untouched control group looks brown and sickly.
A growing relationship with the land feels like medicine for the soul, as Laurie feels like she is making a better future for her baby when she works with the sweetgrass. An important aspect of “becoming Indigenous to a place,” Kimmerer later states, is taking care of one’s home for the sake of one’s future children, as Laurie is doing here. According to the academics’ assumptions, any kind of harvesting should have had a detrimental effect on a plant’s population, but Laurie’s experiment seems to have shown the opposite.
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Even though they were harvesting half of the plants in the two experimental groups, new shoots quickly grew back to replace them, whereas in the control group the older plants choked off the potential for new growth. “Picking sweetgrass seemed to actually stimulate growth,” Kimmerer says. Laurie makes sure that her data is airtight and presents her results to the faculty committee: the professors who dismissed her from the start.
Just like a gardener carefully pruning their plants to stimulate new growth, the respectful harvesting of the basket makers encouraged a healthy population. A relationship with people was productive for the plant, not detrimental.
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In the next section, “Discussion,” the faculty committee talks with Laurie about her findings, asking her how she can explain that harvested sweetgrass flourished while untouched sweetgrass declines. She recognizes that there has been little research done on the relationship between Indigenous harvesters and sweetgrass, but there are scientific precedents for this in other grasses who respond well to fire or grazing. Many grasses undergo “compensatory growth” when they are harvested or otherwise disturbed—for example, by free-ranging buffalo—which means that they grow back faster to make up for their losses, and in turn attract the buffalo back months later.
The discussion with the faculty in this scene is analogous to other sections where Kimmerer gives scientific explanations for the plant activities that she describes. It’s explained here why a plant population might respond positively to the right number of external stressors. While she acknowledges that there has not been much research on the science behind Indigenous practices like this, Kimmerer clearly hopes that this will change in the future—starting with experiments like Laurie’s.
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Robin and Laurie wonder if the current decline in sweetgrass populations is the result of underharvesting, not overharvesting. They examine a map of sweetgrass populations created by a former student and see that the only locations that are still thriving are those clustered around Indigenous communities known for basket making.
The sweetgrass has a symbiotic relationship with the people who harvest it properly. As Indigenous American populations have decreased, so too have thriving stands of sweetgrass.
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Kimmerer recognizes that science and traditional knowledge sometimes seem to be in conflict with each other, but she believes that they may “converge when both truly listen to the plants.” Still, Laurie has to present her findings in wholly disconnected, technical language. At least recognizing their own language, the scientists give Laurie a round of applause as she finishes her presentation. The basket makers who are also in attendance just smile and nod their heads—they’ve known this all along.
This passage repeats the idea that performing a science experiment is like having a conversation with a plant. In respecting the subject of an experiment, science and traditional wisdom can agree and work together. Still, in this academic environment only science is respected, so Laurie has to avoid using any language that hints at something beyond data. Her study’s conclusion is another example of modern science confirming ancient wisdom.
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Kimmerer says that through this experiment, the sweetgrass showed how we can best respect it: by harvesting it with restraint and gratitude. Sweetgrass was the first plant that Skywoman planted on Turtle Island, she says, and it continues to exhibit cycles of reciprocity, as the very act of accepting its gift—harvesting it properly—becomes a gift of its own by stimulating new growth. Kimmerer then acknowledges that even the most respectful harvesting is not beneficial to all plants—the key “is to know them well enough to respect the difference.”
Practicing reciprocity also means appreciating the individual needs of each being. Gratitude is a gift for everyone, but with sweetgrass in particular we can offer another gift by harvesting it (that is, accepting its gift) respectfully. Kimmerer returns to the story of Skywoman to show how the sacred plant continues to teach us lessons even from the beginning of human history.
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The brief section called “Conclusions” reiterates “the lesson of grass,” which is that “through reciprocity the gift is replenished. All of our flourishing is mutual.” The “Acknowledgments” section describes the words of the wind moving through the sweetgrass and Kimmerer’s desire to say “thank you” in return. Finally, the “References Cited” names Wiingaashk (sweetgrass) along with “Buffalo, Lena, the Ancestors.”
“All flourishing is mutual” is again the conclusion, and in this chapter, Kimmerer has tried to show the reader that science can reach this conclusion as well—when it really pays attention to the way the natural world works. She again contrasts the sterile scientific structure of the chapter itself with a worldview that considers the animacy and value of non-humans, as when she “cites” the sweetgrass and the buffalo (again, capitalized as if it were a proper name).
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