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
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.