Braiding Sweetgrass Themes

The main themes in Braiding Sweetgrass are reciprocity, gratitude, and indigeneity and reconciliation.

  • Reciprocity: Kimmerer defines and illustrates the concept of reciprocity, which entails a human relationship with the earth whereby humanity gives back what it has been given.
  • Gratitude: The concept of gratitude is central to Kimmerer’s project. She identifies gratitude as a missing piece in Western society and an antidote to its most destructive tendencies.
  • Indigeneity and reconciliation: Kimmerer explores the concept of belonging and considers the possibility of uniting Indigenous culture with society at large to find positive solutions for the future.

Themes

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759

Reciprocity

One of the central themes of Braiding Sweetgrass is reciprocity, specifically the act of building relationships based on the principles of sharing and mutual regard. The concept of reciprocity is crucial in sustaining the infrastructure of a gift economy, around which many Indigenous societies have been organized. The premise of a gift economy is that goods are not bought and sold, as is the case in Western private economies, but rather are given with the implicit agreement that the giver’s generosity will be reciprocated by the receiver in the future.

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However, Kimmerer’s main focus is building reciprocity in the relationship between humanity and the earth, thereby reframing people’s view of natural goods not as commodities to be taken but gifts given with an implicit responsibility placed upon the receiver. This means that humanity, having been given abundant gifts, must now return the favor by showing the earth an equal measure of respect and care. 

To illuminate this theme, Kimmerer draws on the Mayan creation myth, which describes several possible forms of humanity. According to Mayan lore, the first two versions of people were made of wood and of light. The people of wood consumed the resources of the earth without reciprocating, and the people of light were knowledgeable but ungracious and arrogant, believing themselves to be divine. Kimmerer sees in Western society these very traits, and she points towards the Mayan myth’s third version of humanity for a spiritual model: the people of corn, who respect creation and act with reciprocity.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a core belief intrinsic to Indigenous culture and creates the foundation of a gift economy. Following the logic that every gift comes intertwined with the responsibility of reciprocity, Anishinaabe culture holds that the Creator gave gifts unique to each species and with each of these gifts came a responsibility. For example, the Creator gave birds the gift of song; with this gift, their responsibility is to greet the day each morning with their beautiful music. To humans, the Creator gave the unique capacity for gratitud; in return we are obliged to use our capacity for gratitude to give daily thanks to the Creator, the earth, and all the species living upon it.

Kimmerer also highlights how gratitude is especially important in the modern world because it is the antidote to Windigo thinking. Windigo are ancient creatures born from the remnants of men who have given in to their hunger and eaten human flesh. As punishment for their cannibalism, Windigo are forced to roam the woods alone, cursed with an insatiable hunger that only grows greater with each meal. Kimmerer connects the myth of the Windigo to the effects of modern consumer culture, where people are encouraged to satisfy their material urges in ways that only deepen their hunger for meaningful nourishment. In the context of this comparison, Kimmerer advises that having gratitude for all the gifts the earth already provides is the most effective way to combat the Windigo-like hungers that drive Western society.

Indigeneity and Reconciliation

While Braiding Sweetgrass primarily revolves around Kimmerer’s exploration of Indigenous ecological philosophy, the text is also a complex analysis of the legacy of colonialism, the nature of Indigeneity, and the possibility of reconciliation. In order to explore both topics, Kimmerer often uses the careless destruction of American land—and the near extinction of many native flora after the arrival of invasive Western species—as a metaphor for the simultaneous erasure of Native cultures and eradication of Indigenous peoples. “Putting Down Roots” in particular discusses the painful history of Indigenous erasure and the measures that are being taken today to reclaim this cultural birthright. 

Kimmerer further explores the concept of indigeneity in chapters such as “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” where she reflects that even Nanabozho—the First Man, according to Indigenous oral tradition—was once an immigrant. Only through a conscious journey of assimilation does he become indigenous to Turtle Island. 

Kimmerer emphasizes that reconciliation does not mean the appropriation of Indigenous tradition by modern Americans. Nor does it mean forgetting the horrific crimes perpetrated against the Indigenous peoples. Rather, reconciliation will arise through the creation of a new tradition. It is the model for this new tradition that Kimmerer lays out in Braiding Sweetgrass, where Western science and Indigenous knowledge can help to forge new relationships, as laid out in the prophecy of the People of the Seventh Fire. Through storytelling, this braided approach might reshape people’s relationship both with the earth and with each other.

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