Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124

In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place

In this chapter, Kimmerer recounts the journey of Nanabozho as he walks across the earth for the first time. She highlights that at the beginning of his journey, Nanabozho was an immigrant, arriving at an earth already fully populated with plants and animals, but by the end of his journey, Nanabozho has found a sense of belonging on Turtle Island.

The Sounds of Silverbells

In this chapter, Kimmerer recounts a field trip she took with a group of students while she was teaching in the Bible Belt. Throughout the three-day field trip, Kimmerer was anxious to help the students forge a greater connection with nature and moved through a checklist of ecological sights without evoking much awe from her captive audience. Despairing towards the end of the trip that she had focused too much on scientific graphing of vegetation and too little on the spiritual importance of land, Kimmerer recalls being humbled as the students began to sing Amazing Grace.

Through this anecdote, Kimmerer reminds us that it is nature itself who is the true teacher. When people are in the presence of nature, often no other lesson is needed to move them to awe.

Sitting in a Circle

In this chapter, Kimmerer describes another field trip to the Cranberry Lake Biological Station, where she teaches an ethnobotany class that entails five weeks of living off the land. The story focuses on the central role of the cattail plant, which can fulfill a variety of human needs, as the students discover. As the field trip progresses and the students come to understand more fully their relationship with the earth, Kimmerer explains how the current climate crisis, specifically the destruction of wetland habitation, becomes not just an abstract problem to be solved on an intellectual level but an extremely personal mission.

Burning Cascade Head

This chapter centers around an old Indigenous tradition wherein the people greeted the Salmon returning to their streams by burning large swathes of prairie land at Cascade Head. Tragically, the Native people who upheld this sacred tradition were decimated by diseases such as smallpox and measles in the 1830s. By the 1850s, Western pioneers saw fit to drain the wetlands that supported the salmon population in order to create more pasture for their cattle. It was not until recently that the dikes were removed in an effort to restore the original salt marsh ecosystem. Kimmerer hopes that with the return of salmon to Cascade Head, some of the sacred ceremonies of gratitude and reciprocity that once greeted them might return as well.

Putting Down Roots

In this chapter, Kimmerer discusses the legacy of Indian boarding schools, such as Carlisle, and some of the measures that are being taken to reverse the damage caused by forcible colonial assimilation. One such attempt at reclaiming Indigenous culture is being made by Sakokwenionkwas, or Tom Porter, a member of the Bear Clan. At Kanatsiohareke, he and others have carved out a place where Indigenous people can gather to relearn and celebrate Haudenosaunee culture. Kimmerer also discusses her own journey to Kanatsiohareke, where she offered her own services at attempting to repopulate the area with native sweetgrass.

Umbilicaria: The Belly Button of the World

This chapter focuses on a species of lichen called Umbilicaria, which is technically not one organism but two: a symbiotic marriage between algae and fungi. Kimmerer describes how the lichen unites the two main sources of nourishment: gathering and hunting. Algae photosynthesizes and thus produces its own nutrients, a form of gathering, while fungi must dissolve other living things in order to harness their acids and enzymes, a form of hunting. Through this symbiotic relationship, the lichen is able to survive in harsh conditions.

Old-Growth Children

In this chapter, Kimmerer discusses Franz Dolp’s attempts to regenerate an old-growth forest. He did so in a forty-acre plot of land where the old-growth forests had been destroyed by logging operations since the 1880s. Throughout his decades-long journey to restore the land to its former glory, Dolp came to realize the parallel importance of restoring his personal relationship to land. Kimmerer explores the inextricable link between old-growth forests and the old-growth cultures that grew alongside them and highlights how one cannot be restored without the other.

Witness to the Rain

In this chapter, Kimmerer considers the nature of raindrops and the flaws surrounding our human conception of time. Each raindrop will fall individually, its size and destination determined by the path of its falls and the obstacles it encounters along its journey. Similarly, each moment in time is shaped by human experience, and a moment that might feel long for a butterfly might pass by in the blink of an eye for a human and might seem even shorter for a millennia-old river. In this way, Kimmerer encourages the reader to let go of the ways in which humans have attempted to define the world, emphasizing instead the wisdom of nonhuman beings.


“Braiding Sweetgrass” explores the theme of cooperation, considering ways in which different entities can thrive by working in harmony and thereby forming a sense of mutual belonging. Kimmerer traces this theme by looking at forest restoration, biological models of symbiosis, the story of Nanabozho, her experiences of teaching ethnobotany, and other topics.

In “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” Kimmerer compares Nanabozho’s journey to the arrival of immigrant plants carried from the Old World and rehabilitated in American soil. Many of the pants have since become invasive species, choking or otherwise endangering native species to sustain their own pace of exponential growth. However, there is one plant, the broadleaf plantain, sometimes known as the White Man’s Footstep, that has assimilated and become somewhat indigenous to place, working with the native plants in symbiosis in order to propagate. 

In this way, the chapter reflects that while Western immigrants may never become fully indigenous to Turtle Island, following in the footsteps of Nanabozho and plantain may help modern Americans begin their journey to indigeneity. The completed legacy of colonialism is further explored in the chapter “Putting Down Roots,” where Kimmerer reflects that restoration of native plants and cultures is one path towards reconciliation. Specifically, this chapter highlights how it is more important to focus on growing a brighter future for the following generations rather than seeking revenge for the wrongs suffered by previous generations.

In the following chapter, “Umbilicaria: The Belly Button of the World,” Kimmerer sees the fungi–algae relationship as a model for human survival as a species. During times of plenty, species are able to survive on their own but when conditions become harsh it is only through inter-species reciprocity that they can hope to survive.

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