Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Robin is now on the West Coast, a part of the country where she has never been before. Feeling lonely in this unfamiliar place, she thinks about the story of Skywoman, remembering that Skywoman was herself an immigrant to Turtle Island. Further considering the Creation story, Robin remembers that humans were the last beings to be created, after all other life; this is why they’re called the youngest siblings of creation. Nanabozho, the first man to be created, was part human, part spirit, and is an important teaching figure in Anishinaabe culture.
Several chapters from this point on are set during this trip to the West Coast, where Robin encounters an unfamiliar landscape that leads her to find new plant teachers. This chapter also focuses on Nanabozho, who is a trickster spirit and shapeshifter but also a “culture hero,” or a mythological hero who changes the early world through their actions (like Prometheus stealing fire for humanity in Greek mythology).
Themes
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Kimmerer imagines how Nanabozho felt upon first arriving in his new home of Turtle Island. She herself felt strange here in this new environment of the West Coast, and for comfort she sought out her “Sitka Spruce grandmother.” Robin makes an offering and sits down among her roots, waiting for the tree to introduce her to the “neighbors” and make her feel welcomed and at home. The story then returns to Nanabozho: like Skywoman, Nanabozho was an immigrant, recognizing that his new home wasn’t the “new world,” but something already old and existing in balance long before his arrival.
Robin has such a close connection to her own land that she feels like an exile or immigrant even on another part of Turtle Island (like the feeling that she shared with neighbor Hazel in “Witch Hazel”). She uses this emotion to explore the idea of how one might “become indigenous” to a new place, as Nanabozho did upon being created; he was the first man, but that also made him a newcomer. This sense of being a younger sibling of creation is again a reminder that humanity is only one aspect of creation’s whole, not at the top of the hierarchy, and that we should learn from our fellow citizens of earth rather than objectivize and exploit them.
Themes
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When Nanabozho was created, the Creator gave him the Original Instructions as rules to live by. One of the first of these instructions was to walk through the world in a way so “that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.” While the Original Instructions were given in ancient times, many Indigenous cultures see time as circular rather than linear, so Nanabozho’s story is both ancient history and a prophecy of what’s to come. Just as Nanabozho tried to become indigenous to his new home, so we, “Second Man,” should still try to walk in his footsteps towards the same goal.
If Nanabozho is the first man, then we are “second man,” following his ancient lessons but also preceding him into our own future according to nonlinear time. The instruction to walk so that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth condenses some of the major themes of Braiding Sweetgrass: the animacy of the land and nonhuman beings, mindfulness of the gifts of the earth, and gratitude and respect for the mother who provides for us.
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Kimmerer briefly comments on how many Native elders are still puzzled by the European colonizers, even centuries after their arrival, and try to diagnose what is wrong with them as a culture. She wonders if Americans can learn to treat their country as a real home, a place to stay in and love, rather than a temporary conquest.
The elders that Kimmerer quotes here see settler society as still having the mindset of the immigrant and colonist, living on temporary property, rather than a long-term home that they have a close connection to. Kimmerer hopes to challenge the reader to change this mindset.
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Having been instructed to walk across the earth, Nanabozho first goes East, towards the rising sun and in the traditional direction of knowledge. There he learns to use tobacco and receives the knowledge that “Mother Earth is our wisest teacher.” Next the Creator instructs Nanabozho to learn the names of all other beings. Observing and listening to his neighbors on earth, Nanabozho is able to discern their true names, and he doesn’t feel lonely anymore.
Tobacco is one of the sacred plants that Kimmerer and others in the book use as offerings of gratitude before harvesting from the earth. Gaining a sense of the animacy and personhood of nonhuman beings makes Nanabozho feel like he is a part of a community. He is not at the top of a hierarchy, but he is also no longer alone.
Themes
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Returning to her exploration of her own new West Coast environment, Robin tries to turn off her “science mind” and turn on her “Nanabozho mind,” greeting the unfamiliar species around her with a beginner’s eye and trying to find their true names rather than their Latin names. Kimmerer imagines the “species loneliness” of not knowing the names or language of one’s neighbors, and says that this is what has been happening to human beings on earth—we have lost our connection to and relationship with the rest of Creation.
Kimmerer feels a divide within herself between the scientist and the Indigenous poet, and as she experiences this new land, she tries to reenact Nanabozho’s first steps in a new place, learning the true names of things. The scientific mindset places humanity as separate and above the rest of life, but this also leads to “species loneliness.” Recognizing the animacy of nonhuman persons not only makes us respect and value them; it also gives us a community.
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Kimmerer imagines Nanabozho walking across the land alongside Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scientific system for naming organisms. In her imagination Linnaeus and Nanabozho talk together about a common language shared by all beings, with Linnaeus lamenting that such a language has been lost for his people, so that he has to translate everything into Latin instead. The two men share their own unique gifts with each other and find companionship together.
Carl Linnaeus was an 18th-century Swedish scientist responsible for our current system of taxonomy, called binomial nomenclature: naming organisms with two Latin names, first a genus and second a species within that genus. This imaginary scene is then a direct metaphor for the relationship between science and traditional wisdom, as the two men are able to find common ground and teach each other about the natural world.
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Nanabozho then goes South to the land of birth and growth. There he learns from cedar, the sacred plant of the South, as well as from his other older siblings, the animals and plants. The lessons that Nanabozho learns during this time about gathering food, paying respect to the earth, and constructing tools become the “mythic roots of Native science, medicine, architecture, agriculture, and ecological knowledge.” Returning to the cyclical nature of time, Kimmerer says that in many ways our modern technology is only now circling back to catch up with Native wisdom, particular in “looking to nature for models of design.”
Here Kimmerer seems to be referencing the idea of biomimicry, or using evolution’s most efficient designs to make technology more efficient as well. Nature is a great teacher, Kimmerer has asserted throughout the book, and even capitalist business models must admit this as well.
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Nanabozho continues wandering the earth in all four directions, observing the plants and animals and learning to be quiet and respectful, to ask permission before entering another’s territory, and to be grateful for the gifts that other beings offer to him. He also learns that “to carry a gift is also to carry a responsibility.”
These stories of Nanabozho show the origin of many of the ideas that Kimmerer has tried to relate throughout the book, presenting the lessons of Indigenous mythology through science and memoir.
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Robin now stands on a cliff by the sea, observing the landscape and imagining how things would be different if America’s colonizers had learned the same lessons that Nanabozho did—the land might still be plentiful, and she might be speaking the Potawatomi language. It’s too heartbreaking for her to think about this too much, however. Against such a history of tragedy it feels unfair to invite “settler society” to become Indigenous, she thinks, as they will likely just “take what little is left.” At the same time, Kimmerer remembers that the settlers have much to grieve for in today’s world as well—“they can’t drink the water either.”
Imagining what might have been is too tragic for Robin to think about for long, considering the tragic history of America and its dire present. It is easy (and justified) to become bitter in light of this history, and to want to withhold the title of “Indigenous” from the colonist society that has already taken so much. Part of the worldview of reciprocity and communalism means recognizing the fellowship of all living things, however, and Robin knows that the settlers must also live in this same world of disconnection and environmental collapse. It will benefit everyone if they—especially because they are the ones in power—can make a change.
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Nanabozho goes North to learn about medicine, and there he receives a healing braid of sweetgrass which he carries with him afterward. To the West he sees great fires and is frightened, but the Firekeeper teaches Nanabozho about the element’s internal balance, how it both destroys and nurtures. Recognizing this duality, Nanabozho realizes that he himself has a twin who is dedicated to causing imbalance. Because of this, he has the responsibility to be humble and wise in order to offset his twin’s pride.
Sweetgrass, another of the sacred plants, makes its way into Nanabozho’s story as well. Along with its emphasis on the cyclical nature of time, this mythology rejects hierarchy and linearity in its embrace of the idea of balance as well. This sense of balance, of every being and element containing aspects of both good and evil, fits better with the multi-natured earth than the black-vs.-white, good-vs.-evil ideology of Judeo-Christian culture.
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Sitting again under the Sitka Spruce “grandmother,” Robin recognizes that she is a stranger here on the West Coast, but she also feels welcomed by the tree. She continues to think about if immigrants can ever become Indigenous, and she decides that they cannot. But, she asks herself and the reader, how will they ever enter into a relationship of reciprocity with the land if they don’t feel native to it? Robin continues listening to the sounds of the trees around her, and then gets up and starts to walk.
Robin considers plants not only her fellow citizens and teachers but also like members of her family. She practices her own lesson of mindfulness and awareness as she tries to respectfully introduce herself to this new environment and find welcome. Despite her reluctance to let settler society into a relationship with the land that they have ravaged and exploited, she knows that things will never improve unless they really think of this land as their home.
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As she walks along a trail, Robin notices a familiar plant: the common plantain, also known as White Man’s Footstep. This plant was first brought over with the first European colonizers, so Native people didn’t trust it at first. Over time, however, they recognized and accepted its gifts and even incorporated it into their medicine. The plant is still not indigenous to Turtle Island, Kimmerer says, but it has been a good neighbor for 500 years and is now a true member of the plant community here. In contrast, there are many foreign plant species that are invasive and destructive, like kudzu or cheat grass. Kimmerer repeats that Plantain is not Indigenous, but she says that it has become “naturalized”: the same legal term used for foreign-born people who become U.S. citizens.
The common plantain (unrelated to the plantain that is a kind of banana) is a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia but introduced to the Americas by early settlers. Robin finds this familiar plant teaching her an important lesson here, offering an alternative to trying to make a colonist become indigenous—instead becoming “naturalized.” Rather than invading and disrupting the native flora, plantain (note again that Kimmerer capitalizes it like a proper name) has become a “good neighbor” now fully embraced by its plant community and the Indigenous people who live alongside them.
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Kimmerer believes that the task of settler society, of Second Man, is to follow the example of Plantain rather than Kudzu: to become naturalized and learn to treat this land as our home, a place of gifts and responsibilities, a place to live as if our lives depend on it. Returning to the image of time as a circle, Kimmerer imagines White Man’s Footstep following in Nanabozho’s footsteps, lining a path along which we could walk so “that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.”
This is the lesson of White Man’s Footstep to Kimmerer: non-Indigenous Americans should not appropriate Indigenous culture or pretend to be Indigenous themselves, but they can still learn the lessons of Nanabozho and build a relationship with this land that is now their home. This means treating the land with respect and humility, living in reciprocity with the democracy of species, and being mindful of and grateful for the gifts that the land provides for us.
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