Restor(y)ing Sustainable Connections in Braiding Sweetgrass

by Phoebe Cykosky

This past year the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children were discovered in a mass grave on the site of a former residential boarding school in British Columbia, Canada. Schools like these, which were designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Western society, are a reminder of the legacy of dehumanization suffered by Indigenous people across North America. This specific reminder hits especially close to home — the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located less than two hours away from State College, operated as a model for such boarding schools in the US.

The forced enrollment of Indigenous children in assimilationist boarding schools is only one part of the narrative that Robin Wall Kimmerer counters in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer, as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and as a professor of environmental biology, demonstrates the full legacy of Western atrocities in her best-selling nonfiction book, while also presenting lessons drawn from her Indigenous background in order to explain the importance of sustainable action. However, incentivizing this action is not an easily surmountable feat. Kimmerer navigates this by depicting Indigenous wisdom through storytelling — of both her experiences and the ones she has witnessed. The book successfully teaches readers how to become advocates for sustainability, as practitioners of what Kimmerer terms “restorative reciprocity,” by showing us how our lives and the environment we live in are interconnected and interdependent.

Considered sacred to Indigenous peoples, sweetgrass, or wiingaashk, is a native perennial grass found across North America. Harvesting part of the sweetgrass colony allows for the rest of it to flourish, a mutually beneficial relationship between people and plants. Kimmerer structures her book on similar terms. Kimmerer’s act of writing in a sense mirrors the natural world, because storytelling wouldn’t seem like a useful procedure in the professional field if we’re going to move toward a sustainable future. Yet, her stories are able to emotionally resonate with the readers in order to increase connectivity.

The opening sections of the book plant the seeds of reciprocity in readers’ minds through the story of the Skywoman, who falls from the Skyworld clutching fruits and seeds of plants from the Tree of Life in order to grow a new world and promote the spread of native knowledge for taking care of the Earth. The importance of sweetgrass is defined by Skywoman’s allowance for the sweetgrass seeds to be the first to develop.

From this cue, Kimmerer emphasizes the need to work closely with the Earth’s limited resources rather than treat them as unlimited, which has led to increasing damage to ecosystems around the world. These climate-related issues are typically a matter of geopolitical and national action, but Kimmerer provides the key overlooked element — Indigenous knowledge. By drawing on Native American stories passed down over generations, she offers a new perspective in the fight against climate-related degradation by framing the narrative empathetically.

One story that emphasizes the need for sustainability is that of Nanabozho, the “Anishinaabe Original Man” who walked through the world and took note of who was or wasn’t flourishing in their environment, and one day noticed those who weren’t living by the Original Instructions of Life. In one village, he saw people taking advantage of the gifts of the Creator and overconsuming syrup from maple trees, which led him to go to the river and dilute the trees so the people had to work for their syrup and respect the gifts of the world. The story of Nanabozho demonstrates how our human desires can be a double-edged sword — which leads to land destruction and overconsumption.

Kimmerer continues to tend to the seeds she plants in the readers’ minds by emphasizing the need for connection and offering anecdotal experiences about her internal conflict between her professional knowledge of botany and the knowledge from her heritage, which her academic training never valued. Kimmerer shows, however, that these knowledges are not mutually exclusive. Kimmerer emphasizes their interdependence in anecdotes about teaching her daughters to love and care for the land. For example, Kimmerer blends her knowledge when she teaches her daughters the functionality and joy of keeping a garden.

The force of Kimmerer’s storytelling peaks towards the end of the book, when she reveals her grandfather was a student at the Carlisle School, which operated alongside Dickinson College from 1879-1918. The school, Kimmerer shows, intended to civilize children by eliminating their Indigenous beliefs and molding them to fit Western standards. This school, along with many others across the country, offered no benefit to children by forcing them to abandon their culture and identities. Although these schools no longer operate, Kimmerer uses this personal connection to the school to awaken the reader to the need for reform on all levels.

Even though the book is bounded by grief, historical trauma, language-loss and genocide, Kimmerer still demonstrates a love for life. Kimmerer grounds her arguments for sustainability in concrete experiences, which allows the reader to connect not only with her emotions, but with their own as well. Throughout the text, Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass utilizes impactful Indigenous storytelling as a mechanism to braid us into not only a position on sustainability, but also a more meaningful way of living.

Phoebe Cykosky is a Penn State student and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.