Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
A Brief Critical Review
Written By: Kandy Kennedy
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) is by far one of the most informative books I have ever read. Right from the beginning of the book she creates an indisputable connection between the scientific world of botany and the Aboriginal ways of knowing and being. By beginning with a reference to the similarities and differences between the Creation stories of the Original Peoples of the Great Lakes and the Creation stories of the western world, Kimmerer immediately draws the reader into a place of intrigue. While the stories are not the same, some of the similarities have left me wondering which story came first.
Although my biased opinions of the comparisons left me feeling that the non-linear instructions rather commands within the Aboriginal Creation story are much more acceptable, there is room for accepting how the Christian Creation story may have been misinterpreted from the time of documentation. After all there has been a lot of miscommunication and inaccurate documentation of Aboriginal worldview throughout history, I believe it is possible that the Western world’s Creation stories could have been misinterpreted as well. While this misinterpretation may or may not have been deliberate there is definitely a hierarchy rather than an interconnectedness created as a result.
Braiding Sweetgrass takes us through the seasons and the landscapes of the Peoples of the Great Lakes with exceptional detail. The detail however, is not typical of a Doctor of botany but rather an emotional story of how the smells, the feel and the sounds of today’s natural world can take us back to historical events and stories of another time. The details of the stories from 1895 and today are vivid and I found myself in the moment, smiling and at times my eyes filling with tears.
One of my favorite stories is The Council of Pecans, a funny yet sad account of the trying time of her Grandfather’s childhood as a result of colonization. This story is an excellent combination of Traditional Knowledge and Western Science that left me questions about the spiritual components of these wondrous trees and the power unity, a component of Science that dare note be acknowledged by the western academic world. This story tells of the nutritional components of the fruit, the uses in combination with other foods of the time and the deep rooted
respect for the generous bounty the trees provide when fruiting simultaneously. All of this history, knowledge and spirituality is tide up neatly in a story about Pecans and their value in the historic survival of the people and how they remain connected to modern day Ceremony.
The main focus of this book however, is the story of Sweetgrass, planting Sweetgrass, tending Sweetgrass, picking Sweetgrass, braiding Sweetgrass and finally burning Sweetgrass. Through each life stage of Sweetgrass Kimmerer tells stories about her personal experiences at each stage. She includes teachings and stories from Elders and other traditional knowledge holders, many of which are emotionally entrenched with sheer determination to revive or ensure the continued practice of protecting and the stewarding of these medicines and gifts. Some of the stories reflect the effects of war, colonialism and personal loss, while others are light hearted politically motivated, reflecting the tongue in cheek sarcasm of the Aboriginal author Thomas King.
What I truly enjoyed; and I must admit I am envious of, is the excellent job Kimmerer does of incorporating the western scientific details of botany, complete with Latin names, into a language that is simplistic, respectful and useful to all readers. The way she uses story to take the extremely complex and often boring world of botany and transform it into a wonderful example of how two worldviews can complement each other is brilliant. The chemical and biological breakdowns of the plants, while important in a laboratory, are unnecessary to the People and the other beings that are reliant on them for the interconnected life we all have. Kimmerer’s teaching and the experiences she shares with her own family and students incorporates not only the botany but also the traditional uses and values of many plants including some that modern day landscapers deliberately try to destroy (dandelions). Kimmerer takes the time to explain the interconnectedness of all elements, air, water, soil, fire, wind, rain, sun, there are all there and her detailed yet easy to understand explanations of their job and our jobs on Mother Earth is a no brainer. I have nothing else to say about this opus other than I believe it is a must read for all People how ask the questions, can two worldviews ever work as one, why is Mother earth so important and why is it important to give thanks?
She is killing me softly with her song. Excellent!
I Thank You and All My Relations.