Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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

Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer remembers spending her summers as a child canoe camping in the Adirondacks with her parents and siblings. Every morning her father makes coffee, and when it’s ready, he solemnly pours some of it out onto the ground, saying, “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.” Only after this offering does he pour coffee for himself and his wife. As a child, Robin doesn’t question this small ritual and feels like it is an important way to begin the day, as if announcing their presence and giving thanks to the land. Tahawus, she explains, is the Algonquin name for the highest peak in the Adirondacks.
Robin returns to her personal history, as in the previous chapter with the strawberries, showing how a small thing in her childhood deeply affected her worldview growing up. Part of being mindful of the earth and its gifts means announcing oneself respectfully, as Robin’s father does with his coffee offering. Any relationship is a two-way street, and in Kimmerer’s framework, human beings must do our part, which includes being fully present and aware.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Sometimes Kimmerer’s father offers other names—of lakes, rivers, or mountains—when he pours out the ceremonial coffee. Kimmerer’s mother has her own offering of respect: she makes the family leave their campsite spotless and gather firewood for whoever might arrive there next. They only perform the coffee offering when they are camping or on picnics, out in nature and never in the town or under a roof.
Like Robin’s father, Robin’s mother offers her own gifts to show appreciation for the land. There is an important distinction made here: that it’s only when directly interacting with the land that they perform these rituals, not when there is a divider like a house separating person and land.
Themes
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
As she grows older, Robin becomes frustrated by the coffee ritual, feeling like it is a “secondhand ceremony” made by “exiles,” while the real ceremony had been lost in the past. Years later, however, their family makes stronger connections with other Potawatomi people and learns other, similar offerings—made with different words but the same spirit of gratitude and of announcing oneself to the land. Kimmerer now can appreciate that even though her father’s offering was secondhand, it was still sincere and therefore just as powerful as the ancient ceremonies.
The grief for her lost culture and the anger at those who stole it away leads to the young Robin’s frustration with her father’s makeshift ritual, but eventually she realizes that it’s the intention that really mattered at the time, not the exact details or history of the ritual. At the same time, the loss of these cultural rituals cannot be ignored or reasoned away as a means of absolving the people who purposefully destroyed them.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Once, as an adult, Robin asks her father how his offering originated. At first he just says that “it seemed right,” but after thinking about it for a few weeks he reveals that it probably originated practically: they didn’t have coffee filters when they were camping, and so the first pour would have a plug of grounds in the spout. Robin is devastated to hear this—that the offering so important to her childhood was just a dumping of coffee grounds—but her father continues, saying that though it may have originated that way, it eventually became something else. Even when there weren’t grounds to clear, he still offered the first pour to the land in a kind of “joy.”
The personal history of Robin’s father’s coffee ritual offers a microcosmic glimpse into how ceremonies come into being, all through the perspective of one man’s shifting habits. It starts out as something practical, but over time and when combined with intention and awareness, it eventually becomes a ritual. The ritual then is passed on to other people like the young Robin, and what was once mundane becomes an important formative experience for a new generation.
Themes
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
This is the power of ceremony, Kimmerer says: “the water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer.” The earth is generous with its gifts, but there is little that we can offer it in return. One thing we can do, though, is offer ceremonies that turn the mundane into something holy: “a homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
Like viewing a sock as a gift rather than a commodity, seeing a simple act as a ritual rather than a chore changes it and makes it sacred in its own right. This purposeful sense of the sanctity of certain acts is an important aspect of building a new relationship with the earth itself, Kimmerer concludes—a way to make it feel like home again.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon