Sweetgrass represents a way of looking at the world as a system of reciprocity between people and land, and the mutual love and nourishment that comes from such a generous two-way relationship. Sweetgrass’s scientific name is Hierochloe odorata, and in Potawatomi it is called wiingaashk. Kimmerer introduces the plant by describing it as “the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” one of the first plants to sprout from the body of Skywoman’s daughter, so that picking and braiding sweetgrass becomes an act of intimacy with the land itself, like braiding one’s mother’s hair. Kimmerer then builds on this idea, emphasizing aspects of sweetgrass that represent reciprocity between people and land. In “Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass,” she helps her graduate student Laurie study how harvesting sweetgrass affects the species’ population. Despite the initial skepticism and scorn of her advisers, Laurie discovers that harvesting sweetgrass in the traditional way—by taking only half—causes the population to increase, while not harvesting at all caused a decrease in the sweetgrass. This suggests that sweetgrass has come to rely on humans as well, adapting to a relationship of give-and-take with the Indigenous harvesters.
“Putting Down Roots” then describes how sweetgrass is best grown not from seed but by replanting shoots. As Robin and her Indigenous neighbors work patiently at planting new shoots of sweetgrass on ancestral Mohawk lands, she likens this activity to recovering the cultural roots that were stolen from so many of their ancestors at places like the Carlisle Indian School. Here sweetgrass becomes a symbol of Indigenous culture itself, while also still representing the reciprocity between land and people that is such a central aspect of that culture. The people work to replenish the sweetgrass populations, and in return the plant offers itself up as a gift to its respectful harvesters.
Sweetgrass Quotes in Braiding Sweetgrass
To me, an experiment is a kind of conversation with plants: I have a question for them, but since we don’t speak the same language, I can’t ask them directly and they won’t answer verbally. But plants can be eloquent in their physical responses and behaviors. Plants answer questions by the way they live, by their responses to change; you just need to learn how to ask. I smile when I hear my colleagues say “I discovered X.” That’s kind of like Columbus claiming to have discovered America. It was here all along, it’s just that he didn’t know it. Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating the knowledge of other beings.
The scientists gave Laurie a warm round of applause. She had spoken their language and made a convincing case for the stimulatory effect of harvesters, indeed for the reciprocity between harvesters and sweetgrass. One even retracted his initial criticism that this research would “add nothing new to science.” The basket makers who sat at the table simply nodded their heads in agreement. Wasn’t this just as the elders have said?
The question was, how do we show respect? Sweetgrass told us the answer as we experimented: sustainable harvesting can be the way we treat a plant with respect, by respectfully receiving its gift.