Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 22 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer describes a woman speaking Mohawk and gathering sweetgrass, and then herself, 400 years later, planting sweetgrass in the same valley along the Mohawk River. In between, however, that language has rarely been heard here. Immigrants pushed the Mohawk people out, and the government forced them into assimilation at places like Carlisle, with its mission to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” The Native children there were forbidden to speak their language and had their braids cut off. They were forced to dress like colonizers, taught to use money, and made to learn skills that the authorities deemed “useful.” This brutal strategy almost worked, but the Mohawk people—also called the “People of the Flint”—were resilient, and their culture survived.
In this chapter Kimmerer returns to sweetgrass and also the subject of Indian schools like Carlisle, with their tragically successful project of robbing native children of their culture. At the same time, she seeks to build on the previous chapter, emphasizing the work currently taking place to restore that wounded culture and create hope for a more abundant future. The Mohawk River is a tributary of the Hudson in north-central New York state, and an important highway for the Mohawk people before they were driven out by colonizers.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Back in her own present, Robin is planting sweetgrass with one of her graduate students as well as a Mohawk basket maker named Theresa, who is helping them. They are planting sweetgrass here in its native range, welcoming it home to the Mohawk River valley. Kimmerer then returns to the history of the Mohawks: some of the culture and people survived Carlisle and 400 years of exile, sustained by the Thanksgiving Address with its philosophy of reciprocity with the land, even when everything else was taken from them. They left the Mohawk Valley and resettled in Akwesasne, which borders with Canada.
When the Mohawks were driven out, so too was the sweetgrass, again showing the close relationship between certain plants and human beings who respect them. Despite the many kinds of colonialist violence that they faced, Kimmerer emphasizes the resilience of the Mohawk people, and also how their adherence to the Thanksgiving Address gave them strength and a sense of community through their trials.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Black ash and sweetgrass are neighbors in this valley, Kimmerer says, and they are reunited in the baskets that the Mohawk people weave from them, mixing the two plants together. The people still give thanks to the land at Akwesasne, but the land itself has “little to be grateful for,” Kimmerer says, as industrial pollution has poisoned the river.
Black ash, the focus of Chapter 14, returns here as another important plant to the Mohawks. Despite the Mohawks’ culture of reciprocity with the land, the land where they now live (Akwesasne, far to the north of the Mohawk River) is itself a victim of colonial industrial practices.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Robin’s friend Sakokwenionkwas, a Mohawk elder whose English name is Tom Porter, began a return to Mohawk Valley twenty years earlier, inspired by a prophecy he heard from his grandmother about the Mohawks going back to their ancestral home. Tom and a few others settled in a town called Kanatsiohareke, where they set about renovating decaying structures and building new ones. Their goal is to celebrate and restore Haudenosaunee culture, to create “Carlisle in the reverse”: “Heal the Indian, Save the Language” instead of “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” At Carlisle, children were punished and abused for speaking their native languages, and so only a few fluent speakers remain, most of them elders.
Undoing the work of Carlisle is difficult and slow, but Tom Porter and his peers have committed to returning to their ancestral home and trying to restore some of what has been lost. As with Robin trying to learn Potawatomi, recovering these almost-extinct languages is another aspect of restoring the culture and the worldview that accompanies it.
Themes
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Kimmerer here reaffirms the importance of language, saying that it acts as “a prism through which to see the world,” thus shaping the culture that speaks it. Along with restoring the language, Kimmerer had the idea of also restoring sweetgrass to the Mohawk valley as a way of recreating a flourishing home that sustains its people. Robin stops by Tom Porter’s home one morning to discuss this idea as he prepares her a hearty breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup. He explains his hopes and dreams for Kanatsiohareke, how he hopes that they can again grow the traditional foods that will sustain them, practice traditional ceremonies, and follow the teachings of the Thanksgiving Address.
To a society based on reciprocity with the land, plants are an important aspect of culture and a sense of home. This means that to truly restore the Mohawk people and culture in their ancestral home, they should also restore the plants that they have close relationships with, like sweetgrass. Because sweetgrass is also a sacred plant, its presence in many traditions and ceremonies is important and will contribute to the restoration of lost cultural practices.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Still speaking of the Thanksgiving Address, Robin asks Tom how he imagines that the land says thank you to humans. In response, Tom just refills her plate with pancakes and maple syrup. Later they play a traditional game in which peach seeds—one side painted black, and the other white—are rolled onto deerskin, and the players must guess how many in each throw will be which color.
This echoes the scene in which Robin asked the maple sugaring workers how to be a good citizen of “maple nation”: not only in the focus on the gift of maple syrup, but also in the idea that one way that we can give back to the land is simply by enjoying and sharing its gifts in a spirit of gratitude and pleasure.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
As he steadily wins more and more rounds of the game, Tom tells a story of Skywoman’s twin grandsons, who struggled with each other over the fate of the world. Finally they played this game to decide the victor: if all the peach pits were black, the world would be destroyed, and if they were white, then life would remain. The twin “who made sweetness in the world” sent out his thoughts to all living things and asked for their aid, so that when the peach pits were cast, every living thing shouted together on behalf of life and turned the peach pits to white.
This is another story of duality and balance in Native American mythology, just like Nanabozho and his twin. While affirming the rich history of this simple game, the story also shows the importance of all of creation working together in affirmation of life itself: essentially, acting as a community for the sake of mutual flourishing.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Tom’s daughter joins their game and shows Robin some beautiful quartz crystals called Herkimer diamonds that she has gathered over the years on the riverbank. They then put on their jackets and walk through the nearby fields, as Kimmerer laments the loss of sweetgrass here just like the loss of the Mohawk language. The history of plants is bound to the history of the people who have a relationship with them, and when Indigenous people and cultures were eradicated or assimilated, so too were many of the native plants. Those native plants were replaced by new crops and accompanying invasive species. To bring back sweetgrass here, Robin knows that she’ll also have to break the hold of the colonizing flora.
Herkimer diamonds are not actually diamonds, but double-terminated quartz crystals (that is, coming to a natural point on both ends rather than just one) that are frequently found in areas around the Mohawk River Valley. In this passage Kimmerer again affirms the importance of plants to Indigenous societies, emphasizing how certain plants can act as teachers and friends while others are invasive counterparts to the colonizing humans that brought them.
Themes
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Tom supports Robin’s idea of bringing back sweetgrass that can eventually form a meadow for basket makers to harvest. He asks her where to get seeds, but Robin explains that sweetgrass is rarely able to be grown from seed; usually it multiplies through its underground rhizome, which sends up new buds to sprout elsewhere and thus move along a riverbank. This worked for the plant “when the land was whole,” but the rhizomes cannot cross paved areas, and development has been the main cause of sweetgrass decline.
Sweetgrass is difficult to grow from seed and is usually propagated by rhizome (a similar kind of rootlike stalk that she described regarding the lilies and cattails). This emphasizes the plant’s connection to history (as new shoots come forth from older rhizomes) and communalism (as a single sprout spreads outward to create an entirely new interconnected community).
Themes
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Animacy and Value Theme Icon
At her university, however, Robin has already begun growing sweetgrass in nursery beds. To find these plants she had to first order them from a place in California—not a natural habitat for sweetgrass—but then she learned that they originally came from Akwesasne, and she took it as a sign that she should buy them all. Now the beds are thriving and the plants are ready to be replanted into their native soil. This project is about more than just restoring a natural environment, Kimmerer says; “it is the restoration of relationship between plants and people.”
Akwesasne is the home of the displaced Mohawk people on the border of Canada, so it’s fitting that the displaced sweetgrass intended to restore the sweetgrass population in the Mohawk Valley should come from there as well. This seems like another sign that restoring the sweetgrass is symbolic of—but also a crucial part of—restoring the culture and community that was lost in the Valley.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer now mourns all the years growing up when she knew so little about her own heritage, which was stolen from her grandfather at Carlisle—for example, she was never taught about the importance of sweetgrass. Back at Tom Porter’s house, he shows Robin a book containing the names of all those who attended Carlisle from 1879 to 1918. He points out his own uncle, and then Robin finds her grandfather, Asa Wall.
Once again, the tragedy of what might have been can only be met with grief and a sense of irreparable loss. One of the special horrors of places like Carlisle was that they not only robbed their immediate victims of their culture, but also their victims’ future descendants.
Themes
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Asa and his brother Oliver were both sent to Carlisle, but Oliver ran away and returned home, while Asa did not. He became one of the “lost generation,” not able to return to his home culture after Carlisle but also not accepted by the colonist society that had done this to him. He joined the army and then settled in the “immigrant world,” working as a car mechanic and hiding anything related to his heritage in boxes in the attic. Asa did achieve what Carlisle taught him to want—a version of the American Dream—but Robin also grieves for her own childhood and what could have been if her grandfather hadn’t been so broken and changed by the school.
The respective fates of Asa and his brother Oliver, the boys who picked pecans in Chapter 2, show how brutally effective Carlisle was. Oliver managed to escape and so he maintained his sense of Potawatomi heritage and closeness to his family and culture. Asa, however, was set adrift for the rest of his life, no longer feeling Potawatomi—and seemingly even ashamed of this part of himself—but also a constant outsider in the culture that had colonized and brutalized his own.
Themes
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The town of Carlisle in Pennsylvania still lives on, and for its tricentennial it attempted to reckon with its history, inviting descendants of the stolen Indigenous children to return for “ceremonies of remembrance and reconciliation.” Robin attends along with other members of her family and hundreds of others, most of whom have never seen the infamous place. The town seems picturesque and all-American; looking at it, Robin finds it hard to forgive.
When faced again with the terrible history of her people’s exploitation at the hands of colonizers, Robin understandably finds it difficult to forgive and move on. No decades-late apology or ceremonies of reconciliation can undo the damage.
Themes
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The descendants then gather around the school’s cemetery, where so many lost children are buried. There they burn sage and sweetgrass, drum, and pray. Robin thinks about the different ways to react to such grief and loss—with destruction or creation, like the two sides of the peach pits. Grief can be comforted by new growth, “by rebuilding the homeland that was taken.” This is why she is so devoted to planting the sweetgrass there in the Mohawk Valley.
Sometimes there is no hope for restoring all that has been lost, but mindful love can lead to a healing kind of mourning and also to new creation. The new homeland in the Mohawk Valley will never be exactly like the society that was destroyed, but with work it will be a new home for a culture that has endured so much.
Themes
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Once more describing her work methodically planting the sweetgrass alongside Theresa, Kimmerer explains that it is like her own “ceremony of reconciliation.” She again imagines the women 400 years earlier working in a similar way to harvest the plants for baskets, and she feels a sense of kinship with them. Putting down roots like this is another way of shouting in affirmation of life, like the people and animals in the story of the peach pits and Skywoman’s grandsons. Suddenly Robin’s trowel strikes something hard in the soil. She cleans it off and sees that it is a large and beautiful Herkimer diamond. She shows it to Tom when she gets home, and he reminds her of the rule of reciprocity: “we gave sweetgrass and the land gave a diamond.”
While Kimmerer found little forgiveness at Carlisle, she has found her own ceremony of reconciliation by doing what she can to undo Carlisle’s work, one sweetgrass plant at a time. In this work she also sees the affirmation of all life, like Skywoman planting seeds for her children’s future gardens. The Herkimer diamond is then another small, tangible symbol of the reciprocity between people and land, as if the land is thanking Robin for bringing back the sweetgrass that it has been missing for so long.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon