Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Braiding Sweetgrass can help.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter follows the perspective of the salmon off the Pacific Northwest coast, gathering outside the river mouth and readying themselves to enter their ancestral home. The people who live by the cove and river gather to prepare for the salmon’s arrival, dressing in special clothes and preparing a feast. Still the salmon don’t come, however, so the people light a fire in a meadow on the headland (a jutting outcrop of land that is visible from the sea). The fire blazes up across the whole meadow, stopping only at the edge of the wet forest. The fire is meant as a sign for the salmon, telling them that they are welcome to return and that they will be thanked and honored by the people. The salmon all move as one and head towards the river mouth.
This chapter is more speculative and fictional than most, as Kimmerer imagines a past relationship between salmon and people in which the salmon recognize the signal of fire as a sign to enter the river. This is an idealized image of a past in which human and non-human persons lived in harmony and reciprocity with each other, as the salmon offer themselves up once they know that their sacrifice will be properly honored. Notably, the sign of this honor is the fire on the headland, signaling the salmon but also furthering its own ecosystem of human interaction with the land.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The next morning the headland is a field of ash, and the people are celebrating a river full of salmon. They wait four days before harvesting the first fish, who is caught by the “most honored fisher and prepared with ritual care.” Then they dance, feast on the salmon and other sacred foods, and give thanks. They return the salmon’s bones to the river, placing them to face upstream so that the salmon’s spirit can travel alongside their brethren. After all this ceremony the real harvest of salmon begins, though the elders still remind the fishermen to take only what they need and no more.
The harvest of the salmon is marked at every step by respect, gratitude, and mindfulness. Even as the people rely on the salmon’s bodies for food, they treat them as fellow persons and try to repay their gifts with their own. These people also follow the general rules of the Honorable Harvest.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Now using more scientific terms, Kimmerer names the different species of salmon that the tribe would have harvested, and she describes how they provided food for people and other animals—even their decaying bodies provided nutrients for the forests along the river. In the spring, the burned meadow bursts with new life, fertilized by the ash and drawing in new wildlife. The meadow is a sacred place to the people, where healers gather medicinal plants and spiritual seekers come to fast and meditate. Kimmerer ends the story with the tragic truth: these people have now entirely died out, and only pieces of their stories remain. Their history is still written in the soil of the headland, however.
The burned headland is not just collateral damage from the people’s signal to the salmon, but its own ritual of reciprocity with the land. Like the respectful harvesting of sweetgrass or the paring back of young sugar maples, carefully burning the headland actually causes new life to flourish. This intimate act of destruction and rebirth that joins people and land also makes the headland sacred, adding to the special care and respect that they hold for this place. Kimmerer then ends this beautiful story with the horrifying reality: these people are now entirely extinct, their way of life only lingering in the soil itself and its history of fire.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
In Oregon in the 1830s, smallpox and measles decimated Indigenous populations, often long before any settlers arrived in person. These settlers enjoyed all the plenitude left behind by the dead, but they soon grew greedy for more and decided to turn the salt marsh into flat grazing land for cattle. Kimmerer describes why estuaries are so important, acting as very biodiverse wetlands where the salmon grow up. The colonizers built dikes to keep the water out and dried up the estuary, flushing the young salmon out to sea where they made easy prey and suffered from the fast transition from fresh to salt water.
This is another example of European settlers assuming that Indigenous agricultural practices were the result of laziness or ignorance, not respect for the land—and they certainly never considered that these practices might be the very reason for the abundance of life that the colonists found upon their arrival. Again, anything that didn’t seem immediately useful to European ideas of agriculture was converted into homogenized farmland, causing untold damage to natural ecosystems.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
The salmon fishing industry also exploded at this time, but without the proper environment anymore, with pollution in the rivers, and with overfishing (as opposed to the Honorable Harvest of the Indigenous people) the population almost went extinct. Returning to the perspective of the salmon, Kimmerer imagines them waiting and watching for another fire on the headland, one that never comes. She wonders: “where did the relationship of loving respect and mutual caregiving between people and fish go?”
The abundance of salmon made the settlers assume that their populations were endless and could be overharvested without consequence (like Nanabozho in the story of fishing with Heron), but they soon learned that this was not the case. Again, the Honorable Harvest not only leads to a stronger relationship between people and nonhuman beings, but also to more abundance—and even from a capitalist perspective, this means longer-term flourishing.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Robin herself now walks up the path to that same headland, observing the lush forest and massive trees. Reaching the meadow, she steps out from the trees to find herself perfectly alone except for two bald eagles overhead. She knows the history of the headland, but she imagines other hikers (or even herself before she learned about it) visiting the place casually as just another scenic lookoff. Because she does know the history, however, she can only stand there and weep, full of both joy and grief: “joy for the being of the shimmering world and grief for what we have lost.” Other hikers go past, and she watches some of them put down their phones for a while and look longingly out at sea, as if “trying to remember what it would be like to love the world.”
Kimmerer again faces the tragic history of all that has been lost and continues to be destroyed. To really be aware of and to love the world as she does (and as she hopes that readers will as well) also means being aware of so much more loss and pain. Elsewhere in the book she paraphrases the famous naturalist Aldo Leopold: essentially, that to be an ecologist is to live alone in a world of wounds invisible to others. Sometimes it seems easier to just be blissfully ignorant, but that leads to its own sadness, as Robin sees in her fellow hikers who are moved by the headland as if longing for that lost relationship with the world.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer comments on how easily we accept the idea of loving a person, but we consider loving the land as having no real practical effects. Cascade Head (the sacred headland) is a physical sign of the love between people and land. The ceremonies the people held there also had practical effects of clearing the land for new growth and ensuring the salmon thrived. She contrasts this to how we think of land—just a pretty place to write about on a postcard—or of salmon—just another grocery to buy.
In “Epiphany in the Beans,” Kimmerer considered the fact that the earth actively loves us by taking care of us, and here she explores how an entire society can actively love the earth in return. She then contrasts this love affair with the disconnected commodities of our capitalist society, which reduces land and even fellow living things to exploitable objects.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Ceremonies hold people accountable to their community by focusing everyone’s attention on the same subject, Kimmerer says. Many Indigenous ceremonies have been lost, and the most common ceremonies in modern life, like weddings, birthdays, and graduations, focus only on people and moments of personal transition. These are important, she acknowledges, and we are familiar with how to carry out these ceremonies, but she also challenges the reader to imagine throwing a party for the arrival of salmon into a river. Celebrations don’t just have to be about our own species.
Kimmerer has explored the importance of personal ceremony before—her father's offering of coffee, her own ritual before harvesting a plant, and her student’s makeshift ritual to thank the dawn—but here she is concerned with ritual on the cultural level. Paying attention to the land and nonhuman beings leads to greater respect and a closer relationship with them, and ceremonies are a way of focusing that attention and making it a habitual part of daily life.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Indigenous ceremonies still focus on the land, while colonist ceremonies focus on people—they had to be transportable to survive in a culture of immigrants, and so couldn’t be bound to particular places. Kimmerer cautions against cultural appropriation of Indigenous practices, but she does believe that colonists need to develop new ceremonies to connect themselves to this land that is now their home.
Part of becoming naturalized—the goal for settler society that Kimmerer outlined in Chapter18—means making new ceremonies that connect people to the land. Colonist culture has many ceremonies focused on people, and they shouldn’t just steal Indigenous ceremonies, but she believes that it is important to expand their current ceremonies to attach themselves to this land and to focus on other species.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Back at Cascade Head, Kimmerer describes a new kind of Salmon Ceremony that is now taking place: field biologists measuring the return of the salmon. For the last several decades a project has been underway to restore the estuary, removing the manmade dikes and dams in the hopes that “the land remember[s] how to be an estuary.” This is the result of scientific planning, not spiritual knowledge, but it is having a similar effect in restoring the land’s abundance.
The description of the land remembering how to be an estuary calls back to the “grammar of animacy” chapter, ascribing active verbs to give agency to nonhuman and even nonliving things. The people who performed the original salmon ceremony are now extinct, but Robin can see a new ceremony developing with these scientists.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The people studying Cascade Head cannot speak directly to the plants and animals, but they can use science to learn what they need. “Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world,” Kimmerer declares. She says that all of the field biologists and ecologists that she knows came into their field because of their love for nature, and that science can be a way of getting closer to nature. The experiments these people run are like their own beacon to bring the salmon home. The land has now returned to an estuary and its natural shape.
The people working to restore this land now clearly share a similar love of the land and the animals as the people who once lived here, and their work is restoring a relationship between people and the earth. Kimmerer again affirms the importance of scientific work, but also emphasizes that it must be done in a spirit of humility and communalism, treating its subjects as fellow beings with value.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer describes the scientists gathering at the river mouth, camping out and preparing their equipment—but still the salmon don’t come. She imagines that one night a microscope light is left on in a tent, and the salmon see this tiny beacon and answer its call to return home.
Kimmerer closes the story with a poignant image: the salmon, who have been waiting for centuries for a people who respects and loves them to return, finally see a new beacon to call them home. This new salmon ceremony can never replace the one that was lost, but it does point towards a more hopeful future, where scientific and science-adjacent work can lead to a new closeness between people and the earth.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Related Quotes