Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Braiding Sweetgrass, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon

Robin Wall Kimmerer is both a member of the Potawatomi nation and a distinguished professor of botany and biology. Throughout the chapters of Braiding Sweetgrass, she tries to unite these two sides of herself: her Indigenous heritage and its traditional culture, and the expectations of scientific objectivity that she finds in academia. She realizes the potential conflict between these two when she first goes to college to study botany, only to find that her sense of wonder and love for plants is scorned as unscientific. For years she succumbs to the pressures of Western scientific culture, suppressing her ideas about reciprocity and the living spirit in nonhuman beings, until exploration of her own Potawatomi heritage convinces her that traditional wisdom has value equal to science in helping people to understand the world. While acknowledging that she is still learning and struggling to accomplish this goal in her own teaching and writing, Kimmerer ultimately asserts that scientific knowledge and Indigenous wisdom don’t need to be opposed to each other, but rather can be combined into a more holistic view of the world, one that values both data and relationships.

This is best exemplified in the chapter “Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass,” which is framed as if it were a scientific article, divided into sections like “Literature Review,” “Hypothesis,” and “Methods.” Despite this technical framework, the content of the chapter is about one of Kimmerer’s graduate students, Laurie, who carries out a thesis experiment to confirm the Indigenous knowledge that harvesting sweetgrass in the traditional manner actually causes sweetgrass populations to flourish, even more so than in areas where the plants aren’t harvested at all. The conclusion here is that is that traditional wisdom adds great value to scientific knowledge, and that science offers methods of verifying and further exploring this wisdom. Ultimately, Braiding Sweetgrass itself stands as Kimmerer’s own thesis, an attempt to weave together Indigenous culture and wisdom with scientific insight.

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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Quotes in Braiding Sweetgrass

Below you will find the important quotes in Braiding Sweetgrass related to the theme of Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge.
Chapter 6 Quotes

The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.

A language teacher I know explained that grammar is just the way we chart relationships in language. Maybe it also reflects our relationships with each other. Maybe a grammar of animacy could lead us to whole new ways of living in the world, other species a sovereign people, a world with a democracy of species, not a tyranny of one—with moral responsibility to water and wolves, and with a legal system that recognizes the standing of other species.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 57-58
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

What I do here matters. Everybody lives downstream. My pond drains to the brook, to the creek, to a great and needful lake. The water net connects us all. I have shed tears into that flow when I thought that motherhood would end. But the pond has shown me that being a good mother doesn’t end with creating a home where just my children can flourish. A good mother grows into a richly eutrophic old woman, knowing that her work doesn’t end until she creates a home where all of life’s beings can flourish. There are grandchildren to nurture, and frog children, nestlings, goslings, seedlings, and spores, and I still want to be a good mother.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker), Linden, Larkin
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden.” It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate—once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.

Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say “I love you” out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 126-127
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

It’s tempting to imagine that these three are deliberate in working together, and perhaps they are. But the beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.

The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

The Three Sisters offer us a new metaphor for an emerging relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth. I think of the corn as traditional ecological knowledge, the physical and spiritual framework that can guide the curious bean of science, which twines like a double helix. The squash creates the ethical habitat for coexistence and mutual flourishing. I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges. And so all may be fed.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

What would it be like, I wondered, to live with that heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours? To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect? Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker), John Pigeon
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
Chapter 17 Quotes

Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures, but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker), Nanabozho
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

The state guidelines on hunting and gathering are based exclusively in the biophysical realm, while the rules of the Honorable Harvest are based on accountability to both the physical and the metaphysical world. The taking of another life to support your own is far more significant when you recognize the beings who are harvested as persons, nonhuman persons vested with awareness, intelligence, spirit—and who have families waiting for them at home. Killing a who demands something different than killing an it.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 19 Quotes

As an enthusiastic young PhD, colonized by the arrogance of science, I had been fooling myself that I was the only teacher. The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart. My job was just to lead them into the presence and ready them to hear.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

So, were we to act ethically, don’t we have to somehow compensate the plants for what we received?

[…] The students ramble and laugh as we work and weave, but come up with a long list of suggestions. Brad proposes a permit system in which we do pay for what we take, a fee to the state that goes to support wetland protection. […] They also suggest defensive strategies. […] To go to a town planning board meeting and speak up for wetland preservation. To vote. Natalie promises to get a rain barrel at her apartment, to reduce water pollution. […] I thought they would have no answer, but I was humbled by their creativity. The gifts they might return to cattails are as diverse as those the cattails gave them. This is our work, to discover what we can give.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker), Brad
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

As I listen to them, I hear another whisper from the swaying stand of cattails, from spruce boughs in the wind, a reminder that caring is not abstract. The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

The First Salmon ceremonies […] were for the Salmon themselves, and for all the glittering realms of Creation, for the renewal of the world. People understood that when lives are given on their behalf they have received something precious. Ceremonies are a way to give something precious in return.

When the season turns and the grasses dry on the headland, preparations begin; […] With waders and boats, the biologists are on the river to dip nets into the restored channels of the estuary, to take its pulse. […] And still the salmon do not come. So the waiting scientists roll out their sleeping bags and turn off the lab equipment. All but one. A single microscope light is left on.

Out beyond the surf they gather, tasting the waters of home. They see it against the dark of the headland. Someone has left a light on, blazing a tiny beacon into the night, calling the salmon back home.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

Only with severe need did the hyphae curl around the alga; only when the alga was stressed did it welcome the advances.

When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defense of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.

In return for the privilege of breath.

Related Characters: Robin Wall Kimmerer (speaker)
Page Number: 384
Explanation and Analysis: