Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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

Braiding Sweetgrass presents the mythical figure of the Windigo as “that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else”—the greedy part of ourselves that a capitalist society encourages to consume ever more and more, without considering the consequences of our actions.

In many Native American traditions, the Windigo is a human-like demonic figure (either possessing a human or the result of a human’s monstrous transformation) associated with isolation from the group, a gnawing hunger, and sometimes cannibalism. While it was originally connected to the starvation conditions of a long winter, many contemporary Indigenous people—including Robin Wall Kimmerer—also see “Windigo thinking” in today’s market economy that commodifies the land and encourages constant consumption, and in the general mindset of self-destructive addiction to certain substances or experiences. Kimmerer states that the Windigo mindset is even considered admirable in the modern world: “Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success.” This has encouraged capitalism’s principle of artificial scarcity—that even in the wealthiest of modern cities, there must be a hierarchy of haves and have-nots to reinforce the demand for more consumption. While this leads to a depletion of resources and a destructive relationship with the land itself, for the individual it also means the isolation of the cannibal monster: being “banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.”

Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer tries to emphasize the fact that changing our relationship to the natural world is not just a practical necessity, but a spiritual one as well. Even if we were to somehow reverse the effects of climate change and mass extinction, we must also change our individual worldviews to avoid the narrowminded greed of “Windigo thinking” and instead embrace a spirit of communal reciprocity, generosity, and work towards a better future.

The Windigo Quotes in Braiding Sweetgrass

The Braiding Sweetgrass quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Windigo. 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 26 Quotes

Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed made any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry and alone, wreaking vengeance on the ones who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Windigo
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 31 Quotes

The market system artificially creates scarcity by blocking the flow between the source and the consumer. Grain may rot in the warehouse while hungry people starve because they cannot pay for it. The result is famine for some and diseases of excess for others. The very earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice. An economy that grants personhood to corporations but denies it to the more-than-human beings: this is a Windigo economy.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Windigo
Page Number: 376
Explanation and Analysis:

Each of us comes from people who were once Indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationships with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutually beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Windigo
Page Number: 377
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF

The Windigo Symbol Timeline in Braiding Sweetgrass

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Windigo appears in Braiding Sweetgrass. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 26
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...walks through the snow. In times like these all of nature is hungry, and the “Windigo is afoot.” She then explains the history of the Windigo, who is a traditional Anishinaabe... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...the era of the Little Ice Age, Indigenous Americans faced real starvation in winter. The Windigo myth likely grew out of this, partly as a means of reinforcing the taboo against... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer defines the Windigo as a case of a “positive feedback loop,” in which a change in a certain... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The Windigo may have originated in the hungry Northern winters, Kimmerer says, but by now it has... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The Windigo arose as a monster for a communal society: an individual whose greed is dangerous for... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...on a finite plant,” Kimmerer says, contradicting the most fundamental laws of physics. This is “Windigo thinking,” and those in power seem to have no desire to stop. (full context)
Chapter 31
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
...an italicized section in which Kimmerer tells a story of her own encounter with the Windigo. One day she walks across the meadow to her usual “medicine woods,” where she has... (full context)
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 maples will soon die out, to be replaced by the “invasive species that follow Windigo footprints.” “I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Temporarily leaving the italicized story, Kimmerer describes how people in the past tried to defeat Windigos, but no matter how hard they fought, the Windigo always managed to slip away. Connecting... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Though humans alone could never defeat the Windigo in stories, with Nanabozho’s help they were able to succeed. Kimmerer points out something else... (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 cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationships with the living earth.” Gratitude fights Windigo thinking—and it also just makes people happier. (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
...clear-cut forest, Robin throws herself to the ground in grief. She feels powerless against the Windigo, having only the wisdom and knowledge of plants on her side. But looking around her... (full context)
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
Over the next few months, Robin gathers plants to make a medicine to defeat the Windigo. She starts with buckthorn, a harmful invasive species that takes over environments and poisons the... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
...share food and laughter, but tonight she is alone in the house, waiting for the Windigo. She starts to make her medicine: first she boils water and adds in all 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
Robin opens the door and faces the Windigo: a tall, icy monster with red eyes and yellow fangs. He reaches for Robin, but... (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
Robin runs inside and fetches her other tea. The Windigo is repulsed by its smell, so Robin drinks some to reassure him, and he takes... (full context)
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The cup is still full and the Windigo looks satisfied after just that one sip, but Robin knows that there is another necessary... (full context)