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Braiding Sweetgrass annotation


Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, titled Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses notions of ecology through an indigenous perspective. Rich with recounts of her own lived experiences, Kimmerer intertwines her extensive environmental science knowledge with indigenous cosmologies, creating a unique and captivating discussion that examines differences as well as similarities between western and indigenous paradigms.


Kimmerer begins the book by comparing two stories of creation; Skywoman falling, and Eve. “On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her.” The comparison between these two cosmologies about women highlights some of the fundamental societal differences between western and indigenous cultures, particularly in regards to how we orient ourselves around the rest of the living world. Kimmerer states that “in western tradition humans are recognized as being at the top of the hierarchy of beings.” We think of ourselves as elite, dominant and transcended above the rest of the living world. However in native ways of knowing, humans are “referred to as the younger brothers of creation”; we are a relatively new species in the long timeline of the earth, and therefore have the least experience with how to live. Thus, trees are viewed as teachers, and plants are subjects rather than objects.


One area in which this is demonstrated is Kimmerer's native language, Potawatomi. The words that are used to address the living world are the same as those used to address family, creating an intuitive respect for animacy that is often absent from western cultures. “When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that tree an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation.” Kimmerer discusses this, stating that in her culture, people tend to respond to nature as a part of themselves rather than an external entity available for exploitation. “Saying it makes living land into ‘natural resources’. If a maple is an it, we can take up the chainsaw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”


During her time in academic institutions studying and teaching ecology and environmental sciences, Kimmerer encountered some differences in the fundamental ways that she and her peers engaged with the living world. “My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.” However the nature of science within western cultures is to separate the observer from the observed and vice versa. Kimmerer believes that combining native ways of thinking with western ways of thinking could be the first move towards attaining ecological and cultural sustainability. “It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world.”


Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Canada: Milkweed Editions, 2013.


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