Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Braiding Sweetgrass can help.

Sweetgrass Symbol Analysis

Sweetgrass Symbol Icon

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

The Braiding Sweetgrass quotes below all refer to the symbol of Sweetgrass. 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 15 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sweetgrass
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker), Laurie
Related Symbols: Sweetgrass
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF

Sweetgrass Symbol Timeline in Braiding Sweetgrass

The timeline below shows where the symbol Sweetgrass appears in Braiding Sweetgrass. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Preface
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Robin Kimmerer invites the reader to accept from her a sheaf of sweetgrass. She gives its scientific name, Hierochloe odorata, and its Ojibwe name, wiingaashk, and describes how... (full context)
Chapter 1
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...it’s full of plants and seeds. She spreads these over the earth, and they flourish. Sweetgrass is the first plant to grow on Turtle Island, and Kimmerer explains that it is... (full context)
Chapter 3
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer says that sweetgrass, too, should only be a gift, not a commodity. A friend of hers uses sweetgrass... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...this is just “don’t buy it”—if it should be a gift, like wild strawberries or sweetgrass or water, then don’t buy it. (full context)
Chapter 12
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...daughter in the ground, certain plants grew up from her body: tobacco from her head, sweetgrass from her hair, strawberries from her heart, corn from her breasts, squash from her stomach,... (full context)
Chapter 15
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...sections as if it were a scientific article. The “Introduction” briefly describes the aroma of sweetgrass in the wild. “Literature Review” then follows Lena, a Potawatomi elder who is an expert... (full context)
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...of the plants, and sometimes she doesn’t harvest at all, but only checks on the sweetgrass. She repeats her grandmother’s teaching that “If we use a plant respectfully it will stay... (full context)
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
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In the next section, “Hypothesis,” Kimmerer explains that sweetgrass has been disappearing from its usual habitat, so the basket makers wanted to know if... (full context)
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The next section, “Methods,” begins with Robin introducing Laurie to Sweetgrass in the wild and familiarizing her with its smell and appearance. They then design experiments... (full context)
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Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...not think of people like Lena as scientists, but her process of harvesting half the sweetgrass and observing the long-term results seems very scientific to her. In producing her own experiment,... (full context)
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...cornered the market on truth.” Nevertheless, she and Laurie decide to press on with their sweetgrass experiment. (full context)
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First they choose several sweetgrass stands to observe, and Laurie takes a census of every plant. For the experiment, they... (full context)
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...way, Laurie admits later that she did develop a real fondness and respect for the sweetgrass that she worked with. The experiment goes on for two years, with Laurie charting and... (full context)
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...with her first child, but she continues at her work of harvesting and measuring the sweetgrass. As the pregnancy progresses, she feels that her time with the sweetgrass is good for... (full context)
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...in the control group the older plants choked off the potential for new growth. “Picking sweetgrass seemed to actually stimulate growth,” Kimmerer says. Laurie makes sure that her data is airtight... (full context)
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...committee talks with Laurie about her findings, asking her how she can explain that harvested sweetgrass flourished while untouched sweetgrass declines. She recognizes that there has been little research done on... (full context)
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Robin and Laurie wonder if the current decline in sweetgrass populations is the result of underharvesting, not overharvesting. They examine a map of sweetgrass populations... (full context)
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Animacy and Value Theme Icon
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Kimmerer says that through this experiment, the sweetgrass showed how we can best respect it: by harvesting it with restraint and gratitude. Sweetgrass... (full context)
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...flourishing is mutual.” The “Acknowledgments” section describes the words of the wind moving through the sweetgrass and Kimmerer’s desire to say “thank you” in return. Finally, the “References Cited” names Wiingaashk... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Nanabozho goes North to learn about medicine, and there he receives a healing braid of sweetgrass which he carries with him afterward. To the West he sees great fires and is... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Kimmerer describes a woman speaking Mohawk and gathering sweetgrass, and then herself, 400 years later, planting sweetgrass in the same valley along the Mohawk... (full context)
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Back in her own present, Robin is planting sweetgrass with one of her graduate students as well as a Mohawk basket maker named Theresa,... (full context)
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...that speaks it. Along with restoring the language, Kimmerer had the idea of also restoring sweetgrass to the Mohawk valley as a way of recreating a flourishing home that sustains its... (full context)
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...on their jackets and walk through the nearby fields, as Kimmerer laments the loss of sweetgrass here just like the loss of the Mohawk language. The history of plants is bound... (full context)
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Tom supports Robin’s idea of bringing back sweetgrass that can eventually form a meadow for basket makers to harvest. He asks her where... (full context)
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At her university, however, Robin has already begun growing sweetgrass in nursery beds. To find these plants she had to first order them from a... (full context)
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...stolen from her grandfather at Carlisle—for example, she was never taught about the importance of sweetgrass. Back at Tom Porter’s house, he shows Robin a book containing the names of all... (full context)
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...the school’s cemetery, where so many lost children are buried. There they burn sage and sweetgrass, drum, and pray. Robin thinks about the different ways to react to such grief and... (full context)
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Once more describing her work methodically planting the sweetgrass alongside Theresa, Kimmerer explains that it is like her own “ceremony of reconciliation.” She again... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...the familiar aroma again. 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... (full context)
Chapter 31
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...on her side. But looking around her at the budding strawberries, asters and goldenrod, and sweetgrass, she hears them affirm their own power against the Windigo: “we already have everything we... (full context)
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...home and waiting for winter to return. By her door she hangs a braid of sweetgrass, which reminds her of the web of reciprocity, the gifts exchanged between people and the... (full context)
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...well. As a snowstorm builds, she hears the Windigo at her door. Robin puts the sweetgrass braid into her pocket and goes to confront him. (full context)