Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Robin sits leaning against a pine tree, listening to the sounds of the forest. Hearing the wind in the trees and the movements of animals, she feels that she is not alone and that everything around her is speaking in its own language that is familiar to her, though she can’t understand it. Kimmerer muses that a desire to understand this language of the forest is what led her to study botany. In school she learned the scientific names of things, but by their very nature, these names turn their subjects into objects, robbing them of life in the name of precision.
Kimmerer often uses a personal experience framed in the narrative present—like here as she sits listening to the woods—to lead to a larger meditation on the ideas that this experience brings up. This passage returns to the science vs. wisdom dichotomy, as science taught her information about the living things around her, but didn’t give her knowledge of their natures, as represented by their “true names.” This is another way that her initial scientific education disappointed her, since her desire to learn the language of the forest on its own terms was part of what made her want to be a botanist.
Themes
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Kimmerer first comes across the language that is missing from science through the Potawatomi word “Puhpowee,” which translates to “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” She is immediately intrigued, and decides that she wants to learn the language that would have a word like this, something to describe the “unseen energies that animate everything.”
A word like “puhpowee” would have no place in science writing because it is imprecise and subjective, but it also describes an essential aspect of living things that is clear to anyone familiar with them. This seems like the language that Kimmerer has been missing, the counterpart to scientific Latin names.
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Kimmerer only knows how to speak English, but she considers an alternate history in which she would have grown up speaking Potawatomi, which is also called Bodewadmimwin. Unfortunately, children like Kimmerer’s grandfather were stripped of their language and culture as children, and that damage has been irreparable.
This passage again returns to the history of Carlisle and its place within the broader history of loss and grief for the native people of Turtle Island, not just for those in the past but for the culture that Robin herself never got to experience when she was growing up.
Themes
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At a yearly tribal gathering one year, Robin decides to attend a class on the Potawatomi language. Every single fluent speaker in the world is there: only nine elders, many with walkers or wheelchairs. One of them explains that he only still knows the language because he hid when “Indian agents” came to take the other children off to boarding school. Another claims that if the language is lost, so too will be the Potawatomi culture and “way of seeing the world.” The youngest, a 75-year-old man, tells a joke in Potawatomi that makes the other speakers giggle, but then he sobers and asks the audience to reflect on what happens to a joke when no one understands it anymore.
The Potawatomi language is a fragile thing, maintained only by a few fluent elders at this point in its history. Like its myths, a culture’s language both shapes and is shaped by its worldview. A language is not just a historical artifact to be lost or preserved in a museum, but a living thing full of its own meanings, jokes, and perspectives on life.
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Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
After the class, Robin covers her house with yellow sticky notes containing Potawatomi words and phrases. She practices her vocabulary with her sister on the phone and attends an online class twice a week. As she learns more, however, she starts to get discouraged. She’s mostly just learning nouns, not the true language that is at the heart of the culture—this would mean learning verbs, and Potawatomi language is 70 percent verbs (compared to English’s 30 percent). Looking through a dictionary of Ojibwe (a language close to Potawatomi), Robin sees examples of verbs like “to be a Saturday” or “to be a bay.” Their specificity makes her feel even more despondent about learning such a complex language.
This section further shows how a language and the society that speaks it shape each other. English is more about having specific words for objects, and then generic verbs that objects can do, while in the Potawatomi language the object has its own verb that makes it become itself. Rather than just defining this part of the land as a bay, in Potawatomi it is seen as water that is acting out the thing that English conceptualizes as “bay.” In Potawatomi the water has its own subjectivity, its own inner life.
Themes
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As she considers giving up her project, Robin imagines the ghosts of the boarding school missionaries gleefully observing her failure. Suddenly she has a revelation: these specific verbs convey the idea of animacy and life within all things. A “bay” as a noun is something lifeless, but “to be a bay” is something that water and land do “in a world where everything is alive.” Kimmerer describes this as “the grammar of animacy.” Just as it would make one feel cold and inhuman to describe one’s grandmother as an “it,” so in Potawatomi or Ojibwe it is wrong to describe a tree or a mountain as if it were an inanimate object.
Robin now understands that the Potawatomi language gifts non-human and even non-living things with their own life and subjectivity, their inner puhpowee. This is connected to the idea of humans as the younger siblings of creation; in this view, the other citizens of earth are our brethren, not our subjects, and so the language we use to describe them should reflect this. Kimmerer makes this difference clear to the English-speaking reader with the example of one’s grandmother (similar to the sock metaphor of Chapter 3) to show how, from an Indigenous perspective, English is dehumanizing to things that are considered animate in languages like Potawatomi.
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Kimmerer compares this idea to English, where only humans are given the respect of true animacy, and even then, they must be gendered as either “he” or “she.” She describes a field biologist who refers to the animals she works with as “someone” rather than “something,” and one of Kimmerer’s own students who had a revelation that the very nature of the English language, with its limited ideas of animacy, gives its speakers “permission to disrespect nature.” “Wouldn’t things be different if nothing was an it?” he asks.
This is the other side of the linguistic coin, as Kimmerer suggests that the English language’s denial of animacy to anything non-human reflects Western culture’s worldview of treating the earth and its citizens as commodities to be owned and used.
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Related Quotes
Kimmerer invites the reader to consider this question as well, and to imagine how we might treat the world if our language—the lens through which a culture sees the world—considered things like flowers and rocks as animate subjects rather than lifeless objects. In such a world “there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us,” and we might also feel less lonely as a species. In her own life now, Robin tries to keep this idea in mind, greeting the animals and plants each day as if they were persons in their own right. To close, she quotes a Cheyenne elder who once told her that even though the members of the natural world like to hear the old Indigenous languages, they will also understand her if she speaks only with her heart.
Kimmerer challenges her readers to try to see the world through this language of animacy. This doesn’t mean trying to learn the Potawatomi language, but simply trying to see other beings as having their own subjectivity, dignity, and wisdom. While this would mean losing our place at the top of the hierarchy, it also means that we as humans are suddenly surrounded by siblings, no longer isolated as a species assuming itself superior to everything else. This also explains why in the narrative of Braiding Sweetgrass itself, Kimmerer will often capitalize words like “maple” or “sweetgrass” that are not capitalized according to the rules of English grammar. She is still writing in English, but adjusting the language to better reflect the “grammar of animacy” that she seeks to cultivate in herself and in her readers.
Themes
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