Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Onondaga Lake Symbol Analysis

Onondaga Lake Symbol Icon

In Braiding Sweetgrass, the history of Onondaga Lake represents two different ways of interacting with the world and the consequences of these disparate philosophies: one worldview sees the physical earth as a sacred place, while the other considers it to be merely a bundle of resources to be exploited.

Onondaga Lake is adjacent to what is now Syracuse, New York. It was a sacred place to Haudenosaunee people before the coming of Europeans. The lake was the site of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s founding, in which the legendary Peacemaker united the warring tribes and they agreed to live by the Great Law of Peace. When the area was invaded by colonists, however, the Haudenosaunee were expelled from their lands and Onondaga became a hotbed of industrial activity. In the following centuries, manufacturers used the lake as a dumping ground, filling the water with millions of tons of industrial waste. The once-thriving environment of Onondaga Lake was made unlivable for its wildlife, and soon even for people—fish from the lake are still considered unsafe to eat even today. Kimmerer relates this history to emphasize the differences between the gift economy and the market economy, or the ways of seeing the world as something alive and holy versus a mere commodity. The Haudenosaunee treated Onondaga Lake as a sacred place and the lake thrived, while Allied Chemical and other companies consumed all the resources they could get their hands on, and it nearly died. Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer emphasizes that our current culture of capitalist overconsumption is unsustainable, and the tangible evidence of that can be seen in places like Onondaga Lake. Instead, she advocates that we see the world like a gift—the way the Haudenosaunee treated Onondaga Lake—and take care of it rather than exploiting it.

Onondaga Lake Quotes in Braiding Sweetgrass

The Braiding Sweetgrass quotes below all refer to the symbol of Onondaga Lake. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
).
Chapter 27 Quotes

Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. It’s not enough to grieve. It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.

We have enjoyed the feast generously laid out for us by Mother Earth, but now the plates are empty and dining room is a mess. It’s time we started doing the dishes in Mother Earth’s kitchen.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Onondaga Lake
Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:
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Onondaga Lake Symbol Timeline in Braiding Sweetgrass

The timeline below shows where the symbol Onondaga Lake appears in Braiding Sweetgrass. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 9
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...her work eventually dies. One day there is a nearby rally for the cleanup of Onondaga Lake , a place sacred to the Onondaga Nation but now one of the most polluted... (full context)
Chapter 27
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...Haudenosaunee nations at the “Great Tree of Peace,” a white pine on the shore of Onondaga Lake . This was the birth of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, “the oldest living democracy on the... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer now relates how Onondaga Lake went from a sacred and cherished site to one of the most polluted lakes in... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...“The water has been tricked,” Kimmerer writes: the rain and the creek that flow into Onondaga Lake are fulfilling their purpose responsibly, but now they have been made to carry poison into... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer describes how Onondaga Lake looks today, its shoreline steep with white cliffs of Solvay waste. The waste continues to... (full context)
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
In the 1880s, at the height of its industrial wealth, Onondaga Lake was a tourist attraction famed for its swimming and whitefish. Swimming was banned in 1940,... (full context)
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer compares the wounds of Onondaga Lake and its waterways to the snakes that needed to be combed out of Tadodaho’s hair.... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...legal standing necessary to move restoration of the land forward”—to begin the proper cleanup of Onondaga Lake and its surrounding area. The defendants were the state of New York and several corporations,... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Because of other outside pressures, Honeywell had already begun cleaning up Onondaga Lake , but only in superficial ways—merely covering the contaminants in sand—that wouldn’t help restore the... (full context)
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Robin now describes her own experience with Onondaga Lake : she knew nothing of its history until college, when her attention was briefly brought... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...implies that the land itself has become useless or been squandered—and in the case of Onondaga Lake no one seemed concerned, as “ruined land was accepted as the collateral damage of progress.” (full context)
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...Robin herself had seen as a student. This one-word message was apt, she thinks, as Onondaga Lake was like a kidnapping victim unable to speak for itself. (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...first place. Kimmerer suggests a new tableau as a counterpart to the Haunted Hayride at Onondaga Lake . This would be a ride about reimagining land in the process of restoring it. (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Kimmerer then describes the plants that have gradually taken root along the wounded shores of Onondaga Lake . Robin digs into the soil where these plants have survived and sees that it... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Whatever new ecosystem might emerge at Onondaga Lake , it is likely to be “naturalized” rather than native, and unrecognizable to the people... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...Examining a nearby patch of green, Robin sees that it is sweetgrass—thriving even here at Onondaga Lake . Referring to sweetgrass like a teacher and friend, Kimmerer says that “she reminded me... (full context)
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...when she was a college student in Syracuse; she asked her date to show her Onondaga Lake , but he seemed embarrassed by it because of its odor and wouldn’t even get... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...a new declaration put forward by the Onondaga: the “Onondaga Nation Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake .” The declaration follows the pattern of the Thanksgiving Address, greeting each element of creation... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
There was a recent cultural event held for the restoration of Onondaga Lake , Kimmerer says. Participants brought vessels of clean water (including one all the way from... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...on the hayride tour. In this scene, titled “Land as Home,” families gather happily by Onondaga Lake , fishing and swimming under trees full of birds, with both the American flag and... (full context)