Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer considers the idea that she was “raised by strawberries,” as wild strawberries were such an important aspect of her experience of childhood. As soon as she got home from school, she says, she would hurry off into the fields behind her family’s house, visiting the strawberry patches and trying not to eat the tiny berries until they were properly ripe. Even fifty years later she is still surprised to come across a patch of wild strawberries, and she experiences a feeling of gratitude as if for a wonderful but unexpected gift from the land.
This passage emphasizes the idea of plants as having their own kind of personhood, here acting as parental figures during Robin Kimmerer’s childhood. They also taught her early on to see aspects of the land as gifts—something personally left for her, as if by a friend or family member.
Themes
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Returning to the story of Skywoman, Kimmerer tells of how Skywoman’s daughter died giving birth to her twins, and when they buried her, a strawberry grew from her heart. Kimmerer says that wild strawberries helped shape her own worldview growing up: that of “a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet.” As a child, she experienced the world as a “gift economy,” unaware of how her parents struggled with the wage economy beyond the strawberry fields.
The connection to Skywoman makes strawberries a special plant in Haudenosaunee culture (although again, Kimmerer herself is not Haudenosaunee), and the idea of wild strawberries as being gifts from the earth was very important for Kimmerer on a personal level growing up. The gift of strawberries made her see the land as generous and loving, even as the wage economy had no room for gifts.
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
For Christmas the members of Kimmerer’s family would always make each other gifts—because they couldn’t afford to buy them, she now realizes, but also because at the time she thought that all gifts were supposed to be specially made for the recipient. For Father’s Day, her mother would bake her father a strawberry shortcake with wild strawberries picked by Robin and her siblings: another gift that couldn’t be bought.
Economic hardship may have forced the tradition of homemade gifts in Robin’s family, but these gifts were also much more special than anything they could have purchased premade. The first gift is the gift of strawberries from the land, which is then passed on from the family to Robin’s father through the strawberry shortcake, showing how gifts tend to keep giving and building more community.
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Kimmerer muses on the nature of gifts: they are freely given, but they also establish a relationship and sense of responsibility between the giver and receiver. As a child, Robin would instinctively pull up weeds around the strawberry patches, and in response, new plants would bloom. In contrast to this, some farmers nearby grew strawberries to sell, and they would sometimes hire Robin and her siblings to help pick them. One woman reminded them that she owned the berries, and so they weren’t allowed to eat any of them. Robin knew that there was a difference between these berries and the wild strawberries: the wild ones “belonged to themselves.”
Young Robin tended to the wild strawberries because she saw them as gifts, and accepting something as a gift creates a relationship with the giver. She didn’t own the strawberries, as the woman described here claimed to, so she would never try to sell them, but she still took care of them because of her connection to the strawberries’ inherent generosity. Taking care of the wild strawberries was a way for Robin to give her own gift back to the land.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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Kimmerer notes that our perception of an object depends on whether it is received “as a gift or as a commodity.” When she purchases a pair of socks, for example, she feels no special connection with the cashier or the store—she just exchanges the socks for her money. If those same socks had been knitted for her by her grandmother and given as a gift, however, she would have a very different relation to them—the gift would further a connection of gratitude and future gifts given to her grandmother in return. Wild strawberries are gifts, Kimmerer states, and store-bought strawberries are commodities. She says that she would even be offended to see wild strawberries at a grocery store, and she would want to liberate them—as they are meant to be given, not sold.
In this important passage Kimmerer makes clear the difference between gifts and commodities, showing how the same object can be seen as one or the other. This is a challenge to the reader—who is assumed to be accustomed to our current commodity economy—to rethink their relationship to objects from the land. If the things that we harvest from the land are gifts, then they create a relationship with us, the receivers. If they are just commodities, however, then we can exploit them however we wish—as our current society does.
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Related Quotes
Kimmerer says that sweetgrass, too, should only be a gift, not a commodity. A friend of hers uses sweetgrass for ceremonial purposes, but he will never buy it, even from other Indigenous people—he will instead explain that it must be given freely if it is to be sacred. Some people refuse to offer him their sweetgrass for free, but others are willing to give it as a gift. Sweetgrass is a gift from the earth, Kimmerer says, and it continues on as a gift between people. The more a gift is shared, she claims, “the greater its value becomes.”
This passage highlights another important aspect of gifts, which is that they are dynamic and naturally passed on to others. They create a relationship between the giver and the receiver, but they also lead to new relationships. Reinforcing the lesson of the previous passage, Kimmerer emphasizes that the same sweetgrass is only sacred if it is treated as a gift rather than a commodity.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
This idea led to the concept of the “Indian giver,” which in today’s commodity-driven world has negative connotations—someone who gives something and then later wants it back. In reality, Kimmerer says, the idea arose from the meeting of the Native gift economy and the colonial economy of private property. To the Native people, a gift came with attachments of responsibility and reciprocity: “that whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again.” A gift isn’t a single “free” transaction, but rather part of an ongoing relationship between gift and giver.
Kimmerer builds on this point with an interesting and poignant historical anecdote about the term “Indian giver,” which shows how alien the Indigenous economy was to the settlers. Rather than treating objects as being owned, Indigenous people regarded them as only lent out, having their own ownership of themselves. The gift keeps giving and retains its own sovereignty, rather than remaining a static object owned by any one individual.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer once worked doing ecological research in the Andes. She particularly enjoyed the market in the local village, which was a vibrant and bustling place. Recently she dreamed of this market, she says, but when she tried to pay for things in the dream, the vendors all waved her money away and insisted that she take things for free. She chose a few things carefully and full of gratitude, and realized that she was more sparing in her consumption than if everything had simply been on sale rather than free. She also immediately began thinking about gifts that she might give to the vendors in return. Kimmerer now realizes that the dream was an illustration of a market economy transforming into a gift economy.
Robin’s dream illustrates an interesting psychological phenomenon: that people often tend to consume less when what is being offered is given as a gift rather than being sold as a commodity. This is because the act of gift-giving creates a relationship, and it’s assumed that the receiver of the gift will eventually give something back in return. Our current market economy of overconsumption to the detriment of the earth is an obvious example of the other worldview, in which commodities for sale are bought and discarded without a second thought as to where they came from or where they will go next.
Themes
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Kimmerer reminds the reader that she is a plant scientist who tries to speak in objective language, but she is also a poet who is drawn to metaphors. She doesn’t really believe that the wild strawberries are personally crafting a gift for her, but she also recognizes how little science knows about plants and their consciousnesses and the different ways that evolution works to further generations of a species. Her main point is this: that our perspective is what makes the world either a gift or a commodity. Treating the world as a gift means respecting it and feeling a responsibility to give back to it in return.
Kimmerer draws attention to the dichotomy within her own writing, as she continues to try to “braid” scientific knowledge with Indigenous wisdom, and on a sentence-by-sentence level to braid fact with metaphor. This line becomes even more blurred regarding the study of plants, as scientific knowledge is very limited about subjects like wisdom and non-human consciousnesses. This passage broadens the metaphor of the socks to describe the entire world as able to be perceived as either gift or commodity. That perspective shift drastically changes how we interact with the earth itself.
Themes
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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Centuries ago, Kimmerer says, it was easier to see the world as a gift, like the geese who caught Skywoman as she was falling or who arrived every year to offer themselves as food for people. Eating a goose that one has known and killed is very different from buying meat at the grocery store wrapped in plastic, the corpse of a bird raised in a cage. “That is not a gift of life; it is a theft.” Kimmerer acknowledges that we cannot all live as hunter-gatherers in today’s world, but we can at least change our perspective and act as if “the living world were a gift.” One way to do this is just “don’t buy it”—if it should be a gift, like wild strawberries or sweetgrass or water, then don’t buy it.
Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer tries to give practical examples so that her readers can apply the ideas that she presents in their own lives. She isn’t proposing that we return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but we can change our perspectives and use that gift mindset to guide our purchases in daily life. An important aspect of this is mindfulness—just being aware of what one is consuming, like taking the time to think of the living bird that the plastic-wrapped grocery meat comes from. This increased awareness then generally leads to increased respect and gratitude for what one is consuming.
Themes
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Kimmerer says that for most of human history, “common resources were the rule.” Some societies invented commodity economies, however; and such economies have taken over the world in recent centuries, causing both good and harm to humans, but destruction to the earth itself. Yet treating the world as a commodity is just “a story we have told ourselves,” Kimmerer says, “and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.” We have the choice to exist in a gift economy with the land itself, living in both surprised gratitude and with a sense of responsibility to give back our own gifts. Even with the same number of resources available, seeing them as commodities makes us feel poor, while seeing them as gifts makes us feel wealthy.
This passage lends some important perspective on our current world and its place amidst the history of humanity and life itself. Our current commodity economy is a relatively recent development in the course of human history, and though its effects on the environment have been drastic, it is also just a “story we have told” and “we are free to tell another.” This offers some hope for the future—if only enough people are willing to change their perspectives and start seeing our interactions with the land and with each other as an exchange of gifts rather than commodities.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Returning to her childhood, Kimmerer remembers how she used to eat the white unripe strawberries when she was too impatient to wait for them to turn red. As she grew older, however, she learned to wait for them to ripen properly. The commodity economy of Turtle Island is built around eating “the white strawberries and everything else,” but it has also left people longing for more. She hopes that we can once again live in a world of gifts, where we are patient enough to wait for things to ripen.
Here Kimmerer compares our greedy market economy to an impatient child always wanting immediate gratification. From her perspective, what we need is to mature and grow more patient as a society, to recognize the earth’s gifts and treat them with the respect they deserve, rather than grabbing them before they are offered and then being dissatisfied with the result.
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