Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
In Anishinaabe mythology, the Windigo is a legend akin to that of the boogeyman. Small children were encouraged to behave well, lest they be snatched by the Windigo. Windigos are the shells of men who have given into their hunger and eaten human flesh. As punishment for their cannibalism, the men are cursed to wander the earth for eternity, wracked by their constant hunger. The more the Windigo eats, the hungrier it becomes, meaning that there is no way to satiate their painful ravenousness.
The Sacred and the Superfund
In this chapter, Kimmerer studies the impact of capitalism on Onondaga Lake. Prior to the colonization of America, Onondaga Lake was the ancestral homeland of the Onondaga people, a central tribe in the Iroquois—or Haudenosaunee—Confederacy, and was honored as a sacred site. Although the United States government signed several treaties with the Onondaga people, in the early twentieth century, the land surrounding Lake Onondaga was illegally claimed by the government, and its people were forced onto nearby reservations to make space for corporate manufacturers.
Recently, the government has made some efforts to restore the lake’s ecology but has neither acknowledged the Onondaga people’s legal right to the land nor committed to a large-scale restoration program. Kimmerer takes Lake Onondaga as a case study to examine the different meanings restoration holds for different people and to consider what true restoration of the lake would look like for the people, fauna, and flora that inhabit it.
People of Corn, People of Light
This chapter centers around the Mayan creation story, wherein the gods have breathed life into the earth with all its plants and animals but were disappointed that there were no beings who were capable of gratitude towards the gifts they had created. According to legend, the gods first attempted to make men out of mud, but they were crude and mute, and they washed away with the rain. Then the gods attempted to make men out of wood, but while the wood-people were beautiful, their hearts were empty of compassion and love. They used the resources of the world without gratitude.
Next the gods made men out of light, but these men were so knowledgeable that they became hubristic and believed themselves to be the gods’ equals. So finally, the gods fashioned men out of corn, and their hearts were full of compassion for the rest of creation.
This chapter is a rumination on the cost of collateral damage, in regards to both ecology and human-directed destruction. Kimmerer contrasts the killing of migrating salamanders—unwittingly run over by cars as they try to reach their pond—and the civilian lives lost as a direct consequence of the US invasion of Iraq. Kimmerer meditates on how the oil economy, that force that motivates the invasion of Iraq and that animates the cars that crush the salamanders, has effectively created a network of death.
Kimmerer reminds the reader that grief can be a doorway to love. Grieving for all we have lost and all that we have yet to lose must be the first step towards making the world whole again.
Shkitagen: People of the Seventh Fire
In this chapter, Kimmerer recounts the prophecy of the People of the Seventh Fire, who are destined to return down the paths of their ancestors and collect the sacred knowledge that has been lost along their peoples’ journey to the present. It is only when the sacred ways of the past have been reclaimed that these People of the Seventh Fire will set out into the future, where they will encounter a fork in their path. On one side of the fork, there is a road paved with grass so soft one can walk barefoot. This way lies healing and the creation of unity between the Indigenous peoples and the zaaganaash, or the Western colonizers.
On the other side of the fork, there is a road paved in broken asphalt glowing with heat and the promise of assured destruction. The People of the Seventh Fire must choose which path to turn down, but Kimmerer worries that Westerners, with their gasoline-fueled cars, may have come across the fork first and already doomed humanity.
In this chapter, Kimmerer discusses the different ways in which people can fight the Windigo mentality that has been promoted by Western society. Some believe that climate change will be the catastrophe that finally resets humanity’s relationship with nature, but Kimmerer points out that going down this path involves immense risk and loss. Instead, Kimmerer recommends using the gifts of the earth and the power of storytelling to heal people’s Windigo hearts through compassion and patience.
Epilogue: Returning the Gift
In the epilogue of Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer describes an old Potawatomi ceremony called minidewak. Gifts are piled high on a blanket, and every attendant of the celebration takes a gift for themselves. This ceremony encapsulates the essence of the gift economy, where wealth means having enough to be in a position to give back to the community. The epilogue ends with an invitation from Kimmerer to the readers to offer up their own gifts and “dance for the renewal of the world.”
The final sections of the book, “Burning Sweetgrass” and “Epilogue: Returning the Gift,” stress both the best and worst characteristics of humankind and encourage the reader to approach their future actions with conscious gratitude.
In the opening chapter of “Burning Sweetgrass,” “Windigo Footsteps,” Kimmerer implies that the West’s capitalistic economy, where people are persuaded to consume more and spend more of their money on objects that have no real ability to satiate their hunger for connection, is a cruel inversion of the Windigo myth. Western culture, rather than viewing the state of the Windigo as a fate worse than death, goes so far as to encourage their people to feed the Windigo within them, prioritizing the health of the economy over the health of their people.
In “People of Corn, People of Light,” Kimmerer examines modern society’s relationship with the earth by drawing on the four types of people created by the gods in the Mayan creation story: mud, wood, light, and corn. Kimmerer worries that modern people have succumbed to the ways of the wood-people, using the earth’s resources without gratitude, and to the ways of the light-people, who possessed knowledge but no wisdom. Thus, it is critical that as a population we can move towards the ways of the corn-people, exhibiting gratitude and reciprocity, before the climate damage becomes irreversible.
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