Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer stood at the front of Higley Auditorium last Thursday grasping a length of braided sweetgrass. She explained that this plant holds special significance in the cosmology of the Anishinaabe, a people indigenous to North America: It is the hair of Mother Earth. But why do they braid it?
“We braid one another’s hair out of concern for one’s well-being and beauty,” she said during her talk. “It’s a tangible sign of investing in the well-being of the other. And that’s why we braid sweetgrass. It is a sign of our care for Mother Earth.”
Kimmerer is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is Anishinaabe and a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and the author of several books including Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. She spoke at Kenyon on the evening of Nov. 9, in part to inaugurate the College’s environmental studies program.
In her studies of the environment, Kimmerer combines “three ways of knowing,” as she puts it: Indigenous, scientific and plant-based. And she added that these have not always had a particularly easy relationship in her life, nor in the academic community.
On the auditorium screen, Kimmerer projected an image of Canada goldenrods and New England aster. The complementary colors of the yellow and violet flowers are, for her, “the most glorious botanical combination that there is out there.” On her first day of college, Kimmerer went to meet with her advisor when the goldenrods and aster were in bloom.
Her advisor asked her why she wanted to be a botanist. She wondered how to explain that she was born a botanist — that she had shoeboxes of seeds and pressed leaves beneath her bed, that she paused while biking to identify the species she saw and that plants populated her dreams. And so she told him the truth.
“I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to know why goldenrod and aster looked so beautiful together,” she said.
But her advisor told her — with a disappointed look — that that was not science. If she liked beauty, she should go to art school instead.
Kimmerer tried again. She told him she wanted to know why plants make medicine for us and why willow bends so easily for basket-making. She was told again this was not science, but that she should attend his botany class and decide whether or not this was for her.
Kimmerer was attending forestry school, where she said there were very few women and no other Native American women. And she realized that during her first day, there was an echo of her grandfather’s first day at the Carlisle Indian School, where he was taken when he was only nine years old from their reservation in Oklahoma.
“And the engines of assimilation began,” Kimmerer said. “Where he was told that what he thought, and what he knew, and the language that he spoke, were not welcome there. I felt that, only they didn’t cut off my hair.”
When she began her scientific studies of plants, Kimmerer moved from her childhood in the forest and her “Native sensibility” to a new worldview. She said she found this approach reductive at first, that it viewed plants as objects and not subjects, and that she almost flunked out of first-year botany. But the more she learned about how plants are put together, the more fascinated she became.
To address the environmental problems we face today, we must ask questions at the intersection of nature and culture, according to Kimmerer.
“How can we use only science — which is explicitly value-free — to address questions of value?” she asked. She said that there are other ways of knowing that we need to embrace, hence the braid.
Kimmerer pointed out that we live in a society where personhood is granted to corporations but not to redwoods. American children can recognize 100 corporate logos but can only identify 10 species of plants. We see the world as composed of “natural resources,” a term Kimmerer said is embedded in our lingo and implies that nature is only there for us to take, and only valuable when we change it. She said we must fundamentally change the way we speak about the natural world and recognize the gifts it provides for us.
“How do we belong to a world in danger?” she asked. “How do we give back to the world we have relentlessly taken from?”