Braiding Sweetgrass Summary

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a 2013 nonfiction book about ecology, Indigenous cultural practices, and the contemporary climate crisis.

  • Kimmerer uses the motif of sweetgrass to structure the book, using the threads of a braid of sweetgrass as a metaphor for her combining of Western science, Indigenous practice, and storytelling.
  • Kimmerer draws on a variety of Indigenous myths and philosophies to illustrate the importance of reciprocity and gratitude, values that are missing in contemporary Western culture.
  • In the process, Kimmerer discusses a number of plants to illustrate the powerful connections between humanity and the earth.

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722

In her nonfiction book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer lays out her philosophy regarding humanity’s relationship with the earth and how humans can work together to avoid a climate crisis. She draws on knowledge gained from her role as a mother, a scientist, an inheritor of Indigenous wisdom, a decorated professor, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in order to highlight humanity’s true teachers: the nonhuman beings that have inhabited this world long before humans and will likely inhabit it long after humans are gone.

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The essential thesis of Braiding Sweetgrass is that it is only through the intentional interweaving of Indigenous knowledge and Western science that humans can restore the world to harmony and fight off the ravages of climate change. Kimmerer posits that scientifically driven restoration will not be enough, because this method only presents a superficial solution for the global issues caused by capitalism and a consumption-driven economy. True change will necessitate a shift in the way people view their relationship with the earth, which will, in turn, necessitate a shift towards the narratives told by old-growth cultures.

The text is split into five main sections, each containing several chapters. Each chapter focuses on an anecdote from Kimmerer’s life that is tied to an ecological or philosophical lesson. The chapters within each section are linked by a particular theme, ultimately taking the reader on a journey from the foundation of Kimmerer’s ecological philosophy in “Planting Sweetgrass” to her concluding thoughts in “Burning Sweetgrass.”

As the name implies, the section “Planting Sweetgrass” conveys some of the fundamental principles of Indigenous thought regarding the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. Some of these principles include the Anishinaabe creation story of Skywoman, the concept of a gift economy as opposed to a private economy, the limitations of the Western scientific worldview, and the animacy of nonhuman species. This section introduces the idea of bringing Indigenous perspectives to modern Western society so as to reframe humanity’s relationship with the earth on the basis of gratitude and respect.

The next section, “Tending Sweetgrass,” is centered around the exploration of the benefits of cultivating a reciprocal relationship with the earth. Kimmerer examines the role of plant species as teachers. In this way, she emphasizes all the valuable gifts and knowledge given freely to humans by nature but also emphasizes that these gifts come with an equal responsibility to return the favor. In this section, Kimmerer also considers the necessity of expressing gratitude to all the respective elements of the earth in order to hold up humanity’s end of this reciprocal relationship.

In “Picking Sweetgrass,” Kimmerer goes further and explains how even active gratitude towards nature is not enough, and she highlights the idea that humans make up an imperative part of the natural ecosystem. This section explores the vital role that Indigenous peoples play in the established reproductive cycle of many plants. As examples, she discusses the joint cultivation of the Three Sisters and the role of humans in maintaining the health of sweetgrass. Kimmerer also provides some guiding principles to help shape a respectful relationship with nature.

The eponymous section, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” emphasizes how Indigenous wisdom or science alone is not enough to restore the land destroyed by Western colonial practices. Kimmerer warns that simply using science to mend surface-level damage to the environment and attempting to reconstruct the original ecological landscape will only be a temporary solution. Here, Kimmerer reveals the need for restoration not just on a physical level but also on a spiritual level. By restoring its sacred bond with the earth, humanity can ensure that such tragedies will never come to pass again.

The title of the final section, “Burning Sweetgrass,” refers to the Potawatomi practice of burning sweetgrass braids “to create a ceremonial smudge that washes the recipient in kindness and compassion to heal the body and the spirit.” In this section, Kimmerer grieves for the devastation humanity has wreaked upon the earth while also providing a clear path forward. Kimmerer draws on mythological sources, finding in the legend of the Windigo and the Mayan creation story metaphors for the modern Western soul. Kimmerer argues that modern society must fight against its insistent cravings, its superficiality, and its love of pure knowledge and embrace a wisdom founded on gratitude.

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