It is a hot September day in 1895, and two young boys go fishing for their dinner. They can’t catch anything and are worried about disappointing their mother—until one boy stubs his toe on a fallen pecan. Soon they realize that they are surrounded by pecans, which they call piganek. They stuff their pockets full but want to carry even more nuts home, so they remove their pants and tie them off at the ankles, fill them with pecans, and run home in their underwear. One of those boys was her grandfather, Kimmerer says, back when he lived on a reservation in “Indian Territory,” which would later become part of Oklahoma.
Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer mixes descriptions of Indigenous culture with her personal experiences and the history of her own family, here retelling a scene from her grandfather’s childhood. While this is a cute story about boys using their pants as bags, the context also emphasizes the hunger and poverty that they must have been living in at the time. The rather sinister name “Indian Territory” also shows that her grandfather’s family had already been driven from their original homes.
Pecan comes from “pigan,” which just means “nut,” as the Indigenous people who named it were not initially familiar with the tree, having already been driven from their homelands and resettled multiple times on the “Trail of Death.” Kimmerer laments how many lives and how much knowledge, language, and culture was lost on these forced marches. She imagines her ancestors being relieved at least to find new nuts (pigans) in Kansas. Briefly returning to the story of her grandfather, Kimmerer describes how nuts are full of fat and protein, and so the boys’ haul would have provided for their family almost as well as fish.
After the coming of European colonizers, much of the history of Indigenous people in America is a story of massive grief and loss, and Kimmerer doesn’t shy away from this reality in Braiding Sweetgrass. Here she brings up the idea of familiar plants as an aspect of one’s sense of home, imagining displaced people finding comfort in seeing nuts similar to ones they were used to.
Kimmerer explains that nut trees don’t produce their crops every year, but instead have “mast years” that are almost impossible to predict, when they all produce nuts at once. Nuts are food for winter, she says, designed to last a long time and to be difficult to penetrate, unlike fruits and vegetables that need to be eaten fresh. For “mast fruiting” to be evolutionarily successful, Kimmerer says, the trees must produce more nuts than the “seed predators” can eat, so that enough seeds will be buried or hidden and forgotten—and then able to sprout. But because nuts are so rich in calories, trees cannot produce them every year, so they save up for their mast years.
As she does frequently, Kimmerer here shifts from a personal narrative to a broader scientific discussion about the chapter’s main botanical subject. The phenomenon of mast fruiting is an example of how many natural processes remain mysterious to modern science.
Scientists have long debated the reasons that some trees reproduce with mast fruiting instead of a predictable yearly crop. In mast fruiting, trees don’t follow their own individual schedules, saving up nutrients until they can fruit—rather, they all fruit at once for hundreds of miles around, even in areas where the trees haven’t saved up extra sugar. In mast fruiting, “the trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.” These bursts of collective generosity don’t seem to fit with the theory of survival of the fittest, but Kimmerer notes that the pecan trees are benefitting themselves as well as the squirrels and humans who eat their fruit. When the animals have been sated, the remaining nuts can begin growing.
Still speaking in a scientific manner, Kimmerer slightly changes the narrative’s perspective to look beyond objectivity and see the trees as a source of wisdom, teaching readers about the value of collective generosity. This generosity also benefits the trees, however, a fact that challenges the usual concept of survival of the fittest and instead posits that nature—particularly in the world of plants—can be a place of reciprocity rather than competition, with no less benefit for the individual plants themselves.
Kimmerer returns to the history of the U.S.’s Indian Removal policies. Resettlement didn’t wipe out Indigenous cultures as well as they’d hoped, so the federal government began separating Native children from their families and sending them off to boarding schools. They would manage this in different ways—through threats, bribes, or extortion. At some point Kimmerer’s grandfather was sent off to one of these schools.
Colonial society tried to destroy Indigenous people not only through direct violence, but also through the cultural genocide of places like the Carlisle Indian School. There is a special horror to these “American Indian Residential Schools,” as they were tragically effective at manipulating children and thus cutting off cultures at the root of their future generations.
The U.S. government was threatened by Native ideas about land, Kimmerer says. Rather than seeing land as property to be owned and exploited, to Native people land was something sacred, a gift requiring responsibilities of those who received it. The federal government made the people’s leaders an offer: they could keep their land communal and risk having it all taken away, or they could take part in the “American Dream” and own their own property in Indian Territory, where their legal rights would then be protected by the U.S. Constitution.
As with the contradiction between the creation stories about Skywoman and Eve, here Kimmerer juxtaposes Indigenous ideas about land with those of the colonizers. The Indigenous view threatened the very basis of colonizer culture—private property, in which land is something to be owned and used by humans and has no rights of its own—and so had to be destroyed. Indigenous people were themselves then forced to choose between their culture’s worldview or the ways of the invaders.
The leaders debated this choice for an entire summer in a place called the Pecan Grove. They did not act like the communal mast-fruiting pecan trees when they made their decision, however, as they ultimately chose Indian Territory and private property. In theory their land could now no longer be taken from them, but within the span of a generation, most of it was lost to private buyers or through legal loopholes.
The tragedies of Native American history include many broken treaties on the part of the U.S. government and private exploitation by settlers, as was the case here. The Native American people chose the ideology of private property under duress, but they were clearly not used to this system and so could be exploited by those with more power, greed, and experience with capitalism.
According to Indigenous tradition, the trees used to be able to speak to each other long ago. Science has long assumed that plants cannot communicate—but recent discoveries suggest that the elders were right, and that trees do communicate with each other. They do this primarily through releasing pheromones, usually warning of threats to their neighbors, but perhaps even coordinating mast fruiting. Masting also might be arranged through underground connections of fungi called mycorrhizal networks, in which fungi connect trees to each other and redistribute nutrients according to each tree’s need, in exchange drawing their own necessary carbohydrates from the trees. “They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking,” Kimmerer says.
This is just one of many examples that Kimmerer gives of current scientific exploration only now catching up with Indigenous wisdom, in this case regarding the idea that trees can communicate with each other. Once more braiding science and wisdom within her narrative itself, Kimmerer describes the botanical facts and then draws lessons from them, seeing the trees as teachers rather than objects. Here the mycorrhizal network teaches the value of reciprocity through the web of giving and receiving that takes place underground, invisible to the human eye.
Kimmerer turns to the present, where she is returning to Oklahoma with her own family for the Potawatomi Gathering of Nations. This gathering was organized by tribal leaders, but the participants are also bound together by “something like a mycorrhizal network” of history and experience, and the knowledge that “all flourishing is mutual.” The Gathering is large this year—it’s a “mast year”—and Kimmerer imagines all the participants as seeds full of both future potential and remembrance of the past.
“All flourishing is mutual” is somewhat of a thesis statement for Braiding Sweetgrass, bringing traditional wisdom learned from a close relationship with plants to her contemporary readers. She connects the trees to the Indigenous culture that grew up around them, both systems based on collective reciprocity rather than competition. Even the history of tragedy among the Potawatomi is part of the mycorrhizal network that binds the people together at their gathering.