In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I wanted to share a book by Native poet and biologist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, titled Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Her collection of essays focus on Indigenous knowledge that is most needed to bring healing and restoration between us and the earth. Her expertise of plants offers a new perspective that places people as the students and plants as “our oldest teachers” (213). We cannot hide from the reality of our ever changing environment and how our planet is in need of its people to learn new ways of living for “humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance” (9).
She recounts the ancient story of how Turtle Island was formed (known to most of us as North America). The story begins with a woman falling from the skies, known as Skywoman, to the waters below with a baby in her belly and a handful of seeds from the Tree of Life. The water creatures graciously help her and through the sacrifice of a muskrat, the much needed mud was retrieved from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the back of a willing turtle where she can plant her seeds giving birth to the land under our feet. The creation of Turtle Island. A central theme throughout this story is the give and take, reciprocity of gifts, between Skywoman and the animals and this is a theme that Kimmerer reiterates throughout her work.
I cannot help but wonder why at 34 years of age I am just now learning this story. This origin story should be present in every American’s mind for it is a story connected to the land we call home. And yet, most of us are more familiar with the creation story of a different place involving a woman named Eve whose exchange with an animal (the snake) leads to a life of exile. In comparing the differences between Skywoman and Eve, Kimmerer writes, “Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness” (7). Unfortunately, most Americans never learn about Skywoman or the creation of Turtle Island and it is their loss. The lack of knowing our own history reveals our disconnect from the land continuing to make us a rootless people like Eve and maybe less grateful. Thankfully, despite incredible hardships and difficulties that Indigenous people have faced and still face, they have persisted in preserving their stories, wisdom and understanding of the world that we need today.
Kimmerer also retells the mythic story of the Windigo, a cannibal monster that comes out during the depths of winter when food is scarce and bellies are empty. It is hard not to picture the White Walkers when she tells this story especially with “The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes…Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind” (305). The Windigo is never satisfied despite how much it takes for that is all it knows. Kimmerer writes, “Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else” (305). She goes on to explain how this story was created as a reminder that “the Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves…See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it” (306). This points back to reciprocity for greed upsets the balance of giving and taking. For it is “the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave” (308). It appears that we have been tricked for far too long.
Kimmerer ends her work with describing the Indigenous way of viewing the earth as a bowl filled with berries placed within two hands being offered as a gift. She emphasizes the responsibility that we all share for the bowl has the potential of becoming empty. The berries represent how for them to continuously fill the bowl, they need to be spread and given the chance to grow in new places. To be tended and cultivated by us. Kimmerer writes how the berries, “remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled” (382). Kimmerer has hope for our future, not despair, for despair doesn’t have the power to motivate change. We cannot just grieve the destruction of our planet, but we “have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us…I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift” (327).
Going back to the story of Skywoman, she did not come alone for a reason. She was with child, “Knowing her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, she did not work for flourishing in her time only. It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became Indigenous. For all of us, becoming Indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it” (9). I for one have been challenged by this perspective for it rubs with the belief that the spiritual realm is more significant than the material (a stance that is prominent in most of the major religions). I know Christianity would gain much for making room for valuing what we can see and taking responsibility for what daily gives us food, shelter, and water. These sources give us the ability to practice our faith, not the other way around.
What would it look like if we all lived in a way that valued only taking what is needed? Kimmerer’s work exposes us to a different way of life that is still possible with greater connection to the earth, providing us with the opportunity to offer something in return for the ways the land provides for all of us. Indigenous wisdom offers us hope if we are willing to listen.