Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer describes her younger self going off to college to study botany, full of excitement and wonder at the natural world. When her adviser asks her why she wants to pursue botany, Robin tells him about her lifelong love of plants, and that she wants “to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” The adviser immediately tells her that “that is not science,” and that she must stop thinking about things like beauty when it comes to botany.
This chapter highlights the apparent divide between the realm of scientific knowledge and the world of Indigenous wisdom. Kimmerer notes how her personal love of biology began as a simple love of plants and their beauty, until this perspective was shot down by her adviser. Because of his race, gender, and position of power over Robin, the adviser’s action is also an example of our society’s scientific mindset often coming from a place of patriarchal and colonialist history, one that is unwilling to accept perspectives that might challenge its status quo.
Themes
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Kimmerer then describes her love of asters and goldenrod, and how wonderful it seems that they grow together, making a meadow seem like a royal court of purple and gold. She wonders why the world is so often beautiful like this when “it could so easily be otherwise.” This is what she wanted to learn about in school, but professors like her adviser insisted that science was something else entirely.
Kimmerer leans into the spiritual side of nature here, seeing the world as if it has intentions regarding humanity, in this case purposefully presenting itself as beautiful to our eyes. Her adviser, who is the one in the position of power and representing the scientific mindset in power in the Western world, declares that this worldview cannot be reconciled with true science.
Themes
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Kimmerer now realizes that in going to the university, she “shifted between worldviews,” almost like going to the old Carlisle Indian School and being told that her entire way of life was wrong and should be discarded. The botany that young Robin learns in school is entirely detached from any kind of emotion or connection between humans and plants. After a while, she starts to believe that she had been wrong all along. She barely passes her first plant science class, but she keeps trying and soon learns not to question the kind of science that she is taught, despite her natural tendency to see things holistically. Her adviser writes that “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”
This passage makes a comparison between Robin’s experience in college and the Carlisle school, which is the most egregious example of Indigenous culture being stripped away and replaced by what is seen by settler society as the only proper way to exist (or in this case, to do science). The adviser’s comments even sound like they could come from a place like Carlisle, as he seems to regard her heritage as a flaw or setback that she must overcome.
Themes
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Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Robin goes on to get a master’s degree, a Ph.D., and a teaching job. She starts teaching “the mechanics of botany” just the way she learned them, still assuming that this is the best approach. One night, however, she stumbles across a photograph of a large American elm called the “Louis Vieux Elm.” Louis Vieux is one of Robin’s Potawatomi ancestors, and seeing his name there connected to the tree makes her have an epiphany: she has “stepped off the path of Indigenous knowledge” in her pursuit of science.
Like her grandfather at Carlisle, Robin is indoctrinated for a while by academia and repeats the same lessons that she has been taught by Western science. At the sight of the elm and a reminder of her heritage, however, she takes a necessary next step and at least becomes aware of what has happened in her own life, recognizing that she has repressed a crucial part of herself.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
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Soon after this Robin attends a gathering of Indigenous elders who are talking about plants. Hearing their stories and seeing their personal closeness with the plants themselves, she is deeply moved and feels like she has come home to a familiar kind of knowledge. These elders, she realizes, pursue questions that science does not. Like her adviser on the first day of school, science’s scope in this case is narrow and ignores other kinds of human understanding.
The Indigenous gathering offers another way of understanding life, the side that Robin has repressed and been unknowingly missing—the wider view of the world that is offered by traditional knowledge. She sees this wisdom not as something primitive or inferior to modern science, but as presenting a crucial aspect of a more holistic way of interacting with the world.
Themes
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Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Inspired by this, Robin returns to ideas of beauty that she had ignored for years because of her science education. Kimmerer then uses this point to come back to asters and goldenrod, saying that there actually is a scientific reason that they look so beautiful together: purple and yellow are complementary colors, a “reciprocal pair” that evoke each other to the human eye—but also the eyes of bees, who pollinate the flowers. The bold contrast attracts their vision, so that asters and goldenrod growing together attract more pollinators than if they were to grow alone.
Releasing the part of herself that she has repressed, Robin is able to unite this traditional wisdom with scientific knowledge through her relationship with plants. Asters and goldenrod are the perfect example of this, as only her sense of beauty led her to study them in this way, and science allowed her to explain why exactly they appear beautiful to the human eye when appearing in combination. Learning this allows her to then move beyond science and find wisdom in what she has learned—the importance of reciprocity, of working together to ensure mutual flourishing.
Themes
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The question of asters and goldenrod is a matter of both science and beauty, then, and to see them fully requires both. Kimmerer muses that science and traditional knowledge might be like complementary colors themselves, a reciprocal pair that, when combined, create a fuller picture of the world. Kimmerer now resolves to understand her work no longer as purely scientific, but also something spiritual and emotional. Asters and goldenrod are “lived reciprocity,” and science and Indigenous knowledge could be, too.
Kimmerer applies this idea of the reciprocal pair to science and Indigenous wisdom, two ways of knowing that can better flourish when combined than when separated and competing with each other. This is another example of the braid that Kimmerer tries to weave throughout her narrative, using both science and traditional wisdom to learn more about plants, and then learning from the plants themselves about how we can better live as humans.
Themes
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon