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
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.
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.
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.