Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Epilogue Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is summer, called niibin or “the time of plenty” in Potawatomi, and Robin is picking raspberries. When she sees a blue jay and a turtle also eating the berries, she decides that she has picked enough and will leave the rest, because “the earth has plenty and offers us abundance.” Highlighting the red and green colors of the raspberries, Kimmerer shifts the scene to describe similarly colored blankets at a Potawatomi ceremony called minidewak, which is also taking place in this time of abundance.
This epilogue returns to the theme of gifts and gratitude, describing a Potawatomi ceremony that Robin personally experiences as an example of the mentality that she hopes might lead us to a better future. After all the ups and downs of the book, particularly the last section, she returns to a small scene of the abundance and generosity of the earth.
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At the minidewak powwow everyone who has gathered brings some kind of gift, and they spread them all out on the red and green blankets. Some of the gifts are intricate and handmade and some are humble, but everyone provides something. Then everyone takes turns choosing one gift each from the pile. Afterwards there is drumming, and they all dance together “to honor the gifts and the givers.”
What is important, Kimmerer suggests, is not the monetary value of the gifts but the community of generosity and reciprocity created by this mass giving of whatever gift each individual can offer.
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No matter the gift that someone brings, Kimmerer says, “the sentiment is the same.” The gift-giving ceremony is an expression of the most ancient Potawatomi teachings about the importance of generosity and gratitude. These qualities are essential to a culture “where the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all.” Hoarding one’s gifts leads to becoming “constipated with wealth, bloated with possessions, too heavy to join the dance.” Sometimes this happens at the minidewak powwow, where someone will miss the point of the ceremony and take more gifts than they give, afterwards guarding their possessions instead of joining the dance.
This is another reminder of the culture that created the Windigo: the monster is the one who takes too much, who hoards the gifts and so is cut off from the community of givers and the responsibilities of receivers. The dance without holding onto one’s gifts is a sign of trust in the community and trust in the act of giving, just like in “A Mother’s Work” where Robin imagines her daughters as gifts being sent out into the world, ones that she must trust will someday come back.
Themes
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“In a culture of gratitude,” Kimmerer writes, “everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. […] We dance in a circle, not a line.” After the dance, Robin watches a little boy cast aside his chosen gift of a toy truck. The boy’s father makes him pick it up and keep it, however. “You never dishonor the gift. A gift asks something of you,” Kimmerer says. She doesn’t know the exact origin of the minidewak, but she wonders if it was started by people witnessing the generosity of plants, as part of the word “minidewak” means both “gift” and “berry.”
Kimmerer connects the idea of cycles—past, present, and future; inhalation and exhalation; giving and receiving—with the overarching mindset of reciprocity. The gift of strawberries returns here at the end as a reminder of both the generosity of the earth and the responsibility that comes with receiving the gift. This responsibility is what builds the relationship between giver and receiver—a relationship very different and much more powerful than the relationship between seller and buyer.
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At many ceremonies, berries are passed around in one large bowl with one spoon, so that everyone can “taste the sweetness, remember the gifts, and say thank you.” The bowl does have a bottom though, so it’s important that everyone save some berries for their neighbors. In the same way, “the gifts of the earth are to be shared, but gifts are not limitless. The generosity of the earth is not an invitation to take it all.”
This is the balance that is important: to celebrate the generosity and abundance of the earth, but also to recognize that it has limits and that it comes with responsibilities, both to the earth and to our fellow human beings. We must respect that everyone deserves their share, and also that the sharer deserves gifts and care in return.
Themes
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Kimmerer muses on how we might refill a bowl once it is empty. Gratitude alone is not enough, she now believes. We should learn from berries that “all flourishing is mutual”: “we need the berries, and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled.”
We have almost emptied the bowl of earth’s generosity in our greed and callousness. The only way to help refill this bowl is with our own gifts: a sense of gratitude and responsibility within ourselves, but also active care for the land and for each other.
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Unfortunately, people have abandoned the wisdom of berries, treating the earth’s gifts like our own property to be exploited, acting “as if the earth were not a bowl of berries, but an open pit mine, and the spoon a gouging shovel.” If we treated a generous person in the same way we treated the earth—by flaunting their kindness and stealing all of their possessions—it would be a moral outrage. The earth gifts us with energy sources like sunlight, wind, and water, but in our greed we have broken the planet’s surface to dig for fossil fuels. “Had we taken only that which is given to us, had we reciprocated the gift, we would not have to fear our own atmosphere today,” Kimmerer says. “We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying.”
This passage returns to and summarizes some the major points throughout the book, particularly imaging the generous earth like a mother figure, who we should respect and take care of rather than rob for even more than she gives to us. The consequence of our actions is not only a broken relationship to the earth, but an increasingly dangerous environment for human beings. Kimmerer brings back the image of cycles of reciprocity moving through the subjects of the book: the giving and receiving of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals; the cycle of life and death through fire and the new growth that follows it.
Themes
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Kimmerer closes the book by imagining a future in which human beings recognize, just in time, Mother Earth’s gifts and give her our own gifts in return. “More than anything,” she says, “I want to hear a great song of thanks rise on the wind. I think that song might save us.” Then, like at the minidewak, she imagines the drums beginning and everyone dancing, celebrating the earth’s gifts together.
The minidewak is a reminder of the principles of reciprocity, responsibility for each other, and mutual flourishing, and Kimmerer hopes that ceremonies like this can focus our attention on applying these principles to every aspect of life.
Themes
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“The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken,” Kimmerer says. It is now time for us to “hold a giveaway for Mother Earth,” to “spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making,” like art, writing, machinery, and acts of kindness. “Whatever our gifts, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world,” Kimmerer concludes. “In return for the privilege of breath.”
Throughout the book, Kimmerer has offered examples of ways that her readers can give their own gifts as part of the covenant of reciprocity with the earth. She closes Braiding Sweetgrass, then, with a call for everyone to change their perspective but also to act on this change by offering their gifts. It is our responsibility, and we should approach it with the urgency of every breath. After all, the gift of breath is what we are really repaying, and in the same way, Kimmerer would say, we take part in the cycles of new breath to renew the wounded world.
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