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Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer / Book Review

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I was raised by strawberries… In Potawatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit. Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet.

It takes 40 gallons of sap, tapped from maple trees and boiled down over hours, to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. As a young person growing up in Vermont, this made sense to me; syrup, one of the supreme joys in our life, and maples, our companions in the landscape, were highly valued—gifts. But later, I was surprised to find how few others, reaching for the bottles at the grocery, knew this. Kimmerer knows this. Kimmerer is an indigenous woman, a professor, a mother, a plant scientist, a poet. She tells of her story, of her own people, and of all people—Cedars, Maples, Geese, Fungi included. Throughout the book Kimmerer speaks of learning from plants as much as people. She will tell you why there is a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup, and over time, it will make perfect sense. This book is transformative like that. The world, described by Kimmerer’s poetic language, her deep knowledge of science, and her Anishinabekwe indigenous perspective, becomes anew a tangle of relationships and responsibilities, of gifts.

Kimmerer states that the book is “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world,” woven to “allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”

Passages that weave nutrient cycling with Potawatomi words for the animacy of all beings are not only beautiful, but vital. Sure, you can read this book and be struck only by how Kimmerer paints beautiful images of fields of sweetgrass, or the co-occurrence of aster and goldenrod—but if you read each chapter deeply, you, as a being in this world, will be transformed. In its power this book is a story of resistance—of Native peoples’ fight to retain and renew their worlds and worldviews. For instance, Kimmerer tells of her struggle to learn her native language, and of its fundamental animacy: “English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.” How does everyone (or everything) being animate change the world, and what we might do differently, knowing this? Further, think on this fundamental divergence and its effects: “From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the ‘gift’ is deemed to be ‘free’ because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of the gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.” Native peoples have endured and continue to endure settler colonial violence, genocide, cultural and historical erasure, land theft, denial of sovereignty and lifeways, and more. We have a bundle of responsibilities to each other. To Native peoples the world over, to our neighbors, to salmon, to trees, to everyone.

In our work with GrizzlyCorps, that is so directly tied to the land, we must serve Native communities. We must also serve the salmon, the insects, the microbes… Every relationship of trust we build, our entanglement and collective strength grows.

Kimmerer wishes to lead the world to cultures of gratitude which, “must also be cultures of reciprocity.” She has given us the gift of this book—how are we going to give in return? We are hanging in the balance, in 2020. All peoples are in crisis. Our actions now must lead us to new possibilities; must heal each other and our world. Now is the time to read this book.

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