Braiding Sweetgrass Book Summary, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Download "Braiding Sweetgrass Book Summary, by Robin Wall Kimmerer" as PDF

Want to get the main points of Braiding Sweetgrass in 20 minutes or less? Read the world’s #1 book summary of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer here.

Read a quick 1-Page Summary, a Full Summary, or watch video summaries curated by our expert team.

Video Summaries of Braiding Sweetgrass

We’ve scoured the Internet for the very best videos on Braiding Sweetgrass, from high-quality videos summaries to interviews or commentary by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

1-Page Summary of Braiding Sweetgrass


Planting a garden can help you grow your own food and understand how we depend on nature. Our environment is in peril, but human beings have faced similar problems before. Global warming, the death of bees, beach erosion—these are all serious issues that must be addressed immediately.

In this passage, the author explores how both Native Americans and their environment were affected by colonization. The author also discusses how Native American wisdom could help us restore our environment.

In this passage, you will learn about sweetgrass and the Potawatomi people. Sweetgrass is an important part of their culture, because it’s used for ceremonies and other occasions. Reciprocity guides many of the Potawatomi people’s actions and beliefs; they believe in giving back to nature, instead of taking from it.

Big Idea #1: The author was raised in two different worlds. One of them was Native American, and the other one was very different.

Robin Wall Kimmerer has experienced a clash of cultures. Her family is Native American, and she grew up in modern America.

Kimmerer is Potawatomi, and like many other Native American tribes during the nineteenth century, they suffered from terrible conditions and harmful government policies. Many of them were forced to relocate to new lands.

Kimmerer’s grandmother was one of the Potawatomi who legally owned land in Oklahoma.

Kimmerer spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who was Potawatomi. She even attended some gatherings. But for the majority of her childhood, she lived in upstate New York. As she grew up, cultural differences between the Potawatomi and American culture became clear to Kimmerer. One major difference was how people treated nature–especially food that it provided them with—and this is an example of the world’s gift economy: things are given to us without any expectation of payment in return; but we show gratitude by offering reciprocation (in this case, planting more strawberries).

Humans and nature have a reciprocal relationship. Humans take care of nature, not because they have to but out of love.

Kimmerer grew up in a small town where people were very generous with each other. However, when she moved to America for her job, she found that the culture was different and more competitive. People didn’t share things as much because of laws and rules.

Big Idea #2: Sweetgrass, which is sacred to Native Americans, has dwindled in number. This mirrors the history of Native Americans themselves.

Another of nature’s gifts is sweetgrass, which plays a vital role in traditional Potawatomi life. This stems from Potawatomi mythology and the tale of Skywoman, an angelic figure who descended from the heavens to spread life across the land. The very first plant that Skywoman brought to life? Sweetgrass! It is considered sacred for religious rituals as well as everyday use when weaving it into baskets.

Basket-weaving has a spiritual meaning for some people. They use sweetgrass to make baskets, which honors Skywoman, the creator. Sweetgrass is becoming harder and harder to find because European plants are taking over that habitat.

Sweetgrass is similar to the Potawatomi people in that it was replaced by foreign plants and then displaced when other tribes were forced from their land. Sweetgrass also suffered a similar fate as many native language and culture, which were lost due to government schools where children weren’t allowed to speak their native tongue or engage in any of their traditional practices.

Like this summary? Have too much to read? You'll love my book summary product Shortform.

Shortform has the world’s best summaries of 1000+ nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What's special about Shortform:

Sound like what you've been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.

The damage done to the land and tribes is lasting. It can be reversed by reevaluating our relationship with Mother Nature and the world around us. We can do this by looking at what we can learn from indigenous cultures, as well as how we can incorporate that knowledge into modern-day life.

Big Idea #3: We should be thankful for nature and give back to it.

There are a lot of things that can be learned from indigenous cultures. One is the way in which they’ve organized their societies to be based on reciprocity and infinite cycles. These cycles are actually an inherent part of being human, as anthropologist Paula Gunn has pointed out. The cycle begins with the Way of the Daughter, when girls learn about how to take care of themselves and grow into women by observing their parents. Once they become adults, they teach what they know to younger generations through motherhood (the second stage). In this third stage, people who were once children return again as teachers for others in the community.

The author is advocating for a loving and caring relationship with the environment. People need to be more aware of how they’re affecting nature and make sure that their actions don’t negatively impact it. This attitude can be applied to small things, such as cleaning up an algae-filled pond near your house.

Caring for the environment creates a positive cycle. First, it improves the health of the birds and fish in that area. Second, there’s clean water to swim in from which other areas benefit as well.

In the past, people treated nature differently than they do today.

When we mine non-renewable resources, there are no benefits in the long term. There is a detriment to both the planet and miners.

Big Idea #4: To maintain a sustainable environment, we must act in harmony with nature.

In the past, people didn’t think much about the environment and were careless with it. Nowadays, there are stricter standards for recycling and people are more environmentally conscious. This is a good thing because it’s led to better things like increased environmental awareness. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of sustainability practices. The Native Americans practiced reciprocation which meant that they only harvested half of their rice crops so that they could plant them again next year and harvest them twice. Europeans who arrived in America didn’t understand this practice but now we do thanks to research into how native cultures lived before European colonization

Farmers in China left half of their rice unharvested. That way, animals could eat the rice and fertilize the soil so that there would be a good harvest for next year. This is an honorable harvest because it’s sustainable and ensures that you take only what you need to survive.

Unfortunately, our food and farming policies do not focus on sustainability. A few states have made an effort to create rules that only prohibit certain actions, such as fishing non-adult trout. And generally, the penalty for breaking these rules is a fine.

The honorable harvest is different from the legal one. The former is a natural agreement between humans and nature to take only what we need, so that there’s enough for nature to grow back. In return, nature provides us with food.

In order to be more sustainable, we need to give back to the world. Trees have given us so many gifts; therefore, we should return some of those gifts when possible.

Deforestation is a major threat to our planet. You can find out more about it and even take part in local tree-planting programs.

Big Idea #5: We can achieve sustainability by looking to traditional methods.

The author is both a Potawatomi Indian and an environmental biologist. The combination of those two things makes her unique because it gives her the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives, which increases her understanding of our complex environment.

The author used her knowledge of Native American traditions to make her botany class more engaging. She decided to teach the students about a traditional agricultural technique called the Three Sisters. The students became excited, and now their first lesson takes place in a garden where they learn about this ancient farming method.

The Three Sisters is more than just a legend. It also shows how ancient farming techniques can be used today to help crops grow without harmful modern methods.

The Three Sisters is a combination of three plants that grow together and complement each other. The mythological tale of the Three Sisters tells us about how these three sisters came to a village during winter, seeking shelter. When they saw that there was little food in the village, they gave what little food they had to the villagers as a sign of gratitude for their hospitality. In return, the sisters revealed themselves to be corn, beans and squash—the ingredients needed by humans for food. They then shared their seeds with them so that people could have enough food to survive through times when there wasn’t much available in nature

Like this summary? Have too much to read? You'll love my book summary product Shortform.

Shortform has the world’s best summaries of 1000+ nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What's special about Shortform:

Sound like what you've been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.

These seeds are perfectly suited for growing next to one another because each plant provides support for the others. The corn grows quickly, so it can provide vertical support for beans that wrap their leaves around the stalks and help trap moisture. In turn, these plants encourage the corn to continue growing by trapping moisture in its roots. Squash also helps protect them from harmful insects with its sharp-pointed leaves.

Instead of growing plants that naturally help and protect each other, we grow crops with pesticides.

Some pesticides harm other animals and kill bees, which are vital to the pollination of plants.

Big Idea #6: To ensure a bright future for our children, we must teach them to be grateful and respectful.

The way we’ve treated the world’s resources has led to an increase in other problems. One of these is climate change, which will only get worse if we don’t make changes.

We can help the next generation have a better relationship with nature by instilling in them a sense of gratitude for it. The best way to do that is through education, and one simple way we can do that is by making students promise to show their gratitude toward nature every day at school.

Native American schools have already started to use this idea of having children thank Mother Earth for providing them with food, water and shelter. This will help instill a sense of gratitude in the students, which will motivate them to go out and change the world instead of just complaining about it. Also, if we’re going to fight against global warming, we need people who are willing to take action because they care about nature. In New England for instance, where maple trees are plentiful but threatened by climate change, we need people who will protect those trees so that everyone can continue enjoying their syrup on pancakes.

People in New England need to stop complaining and start getting politically active if they want to save the maple trees that provide so much for them. They can help by raising awareness of the issue and helping political groups lobby government officials. The Potawatomi tribe is a good example of this; only by giving back now will we be able to continue taking from nature later on.

Full Summary of Braiding Sweetgrass

Overall Summary

In 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass was written by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is a book that explores the connection between living things and human efforts to cultivate a more sustainable world through the lens of indigenous traditions. The author reflects on how modern botany can be explained through these cultures.

The book begins with the story of Skywoman, who brought plants to Earth. The author uses this story to teach her students about sustainability. Next, the author discusses pecans and how they fed people during difficult times and helped them connect with their culture. She talks about gifts and points out cultural differences between indigenous people and modern Western societies.

The author first arrives in college and is very excited about it, but she has a problem; her indigenous identity clashes with her scientific instincts. However, the author manages to resolve these issues. She learns about her traditional language, but it is difficult for her to learn. Later in life, the author makes maple syrup with her children. After lots of effort they only produce little syrup because of problems with their equipment.

The author moves to an upstate New York home after her husband leaves. She meets a neighbor named Hazel and tries to clear the algae from a pond. The process takes decades and is never truly finished, just like her marriage was not really over. When her daughters grow up and move out, she takes up kayaking as a hobby. Her daughter once refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school because she disagreed with it, so the author sympathizes with her decision.

The author tells the story of three plants that grow well together. She explains why they do so, using scientific terms. The sweetgrass baskets were used by indigenous people and are still made today. A student tried to study the sweetgrass cultivation, but was criticized for it. Eventually, he completed his project with great acclaim from faculty members who previously scorned him for studying something different than what is commonly studied at universities. The Honorable Harvest involves taking only what you need from nature and respecting your surroundings instead of destroying them all in a quest for more material wealth or power.

The author recalls a story of Nanabozho, who is an embodiment of life forces. He strives to bring balance in the world and teach humans how to be human. In the beginning of her teaching career, she worries that she has failed to teach her Christian students about respect for nature because they sing hymns on their field trip instead. However, as time goes by, they build cattails together and learn more about indigenous culture through building wigwams.

The author remembers an annual salmon harvest in her hometown, which was destroyed by settlers. The salmon have not returned to the area yet, but efforts are being made to restore them and the indigenous culture. The author talks about lichen and how people are trying to save cedar trees from extinction. One man in particular dedicated his life’s work towards re-growing cedar forests before he died.

The Windigo is a myth about cannibalism that warns people of the dangers of overconsumption. It reminds us to avoid the greediness within ourselves and not overindulge in consumption. One example is pollution, which has been addressed recently by efforts to clean up Lake Superior, where there was once an incredible amount of pollution.

The author acknowledges the importance of stories in trying to restore the land to what it once was. She thinks about the Mayan creation stories and dreams of a world in which stories guide people while remaining rooted in science and framed by an indigenous view of the world. While listening to radio reports of the Iraq invasion, she drives out to a dark road and tries to protect migrating salamanders. Her father taught her how to light a fire, so she thinks about various fire ceremonies and prophecies from her people; humanity will have a choice, but she hopes that we haven’t already passed that moment when we could make decisions for ourselves. The author is confronted by “the Windigo,” which is another word for cannibalism at one point or another during history (it’s not just something from Native American tribes). She confronts it with medicinal knowledge as well as knowledge about its own story: sometimes you need someone else’s help before you can do things yourself—and sometimes you don’t even know what kind of help you need until someone shows up who knows better than you do!

Like this summary? Have too much to read? You'll love my book summary product Shortform.

Shortform has the world’s best summaries of 1000+ nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What's special about Shortform:

Sound like what you've been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.

In the last chapter, the author describes a ceremony where people give gifts to one another. He thinks that this ceremony is a model for how we can all live in the future.

Chapter 1: “Skywoman Falling”

Winter is the time to tell stories. The Skywoman fell from the sky, bringing light with her and landing on a turtle’s back. Several creatures tried to help before the muskrat sacrificed himself to get mud from the sea floor that was spread on top of Turtle Island. The Skywoman danced upon it and grew plants, including sweetgrass (or wiingaashk), which is one of four sacred plants for Potawatomi people because it has many uses both spiritually and materially—braiding sweetgrass can be like braiding hair as both are acts of tenderness.

The author speaks of the richness of the Skywoman’s story. She teaches her students about ecosystems and how they function, but she also explains to them that humans can live in harmony with nature. She compares those raised on the stories of Eve in Eden with those who are raised on a more positive outlook; people who were exiled from their home will never be able to return there, while those who embrace living things can find peace and happiness through gardening.

The story of the Skywoman is more a compass than commandments. It’s similar to immigrants coming to America and listening to their stories. By hearing the origin story of the land, current generations might discover a sustainable future.

Chapter 2: “The Council of Pecans”

Two young boys gather pecans in 1895. They go fishing and don’t catch anything, but one boy stubs his toe on a pecan nut. He picks up as many nuts as he can carry, and the two of them head home. One of those boys is the author’s grandfather, who lived in Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory”.

The word “pecan” comes from Native American languages. It was eventually moved to Oklahoma where the author’s ancestors settled and lost their lands, history, and lives. The nuts they came across were full of protein and a poor man’s meat.

Old indigenous village sites are often marked by pecans. The nuts ripen during the winter, when food is scarce. Animals harvest and store them for later use. This allows the trees to propagate more successfully because of their boom-and-bust cycle.

The federal government’s Indian Removal policy separated Native American children from their families and cultures. The government sent them far away to school, hoping they would forget who they were. They also threatened or blackmailed the parents into giving up their land. Eventually, the Natives had a choice: become U.S. citizens or give up any claim on common land that was theirs by birthright. Many of them chose citizenship and moved to Oklahoma in 1832, where they lost most of their land anyway. Their descendants gather in Oklahoma today, trying to stand together for the benefit of all people like pecan trees do.

Chapter 3: “The Gift of Strawberries”

The author was raised by strawberries. She says that the wild berries in her neighborhood gave her a sense of the world, and she would go play in them after school. Even now, fresh strawberries feel like an unexpected gift to her. In one Native American creation myth, Skywoman’s daughter died during childbirth; strawberries grew from her body when it was buried. The author compares this with how she gives homemade gifts for special occasions (like strawberry shortcake on Father’s Day).

The author notes that while sweetgrass is a commodity, it is also something else. It’s the idea of giving and receiving a gift between two people, establishing a feeling-bond between them. Therefore, this type of grass should not be sold because it can only be given as an act of love. Those who pick the grass do so “properly and respectfully”, which means they give back to the earth in return for taking from it.

The phrase Indian giver derives from a misunderstanding between the indigenous people and settlers. The settlers viewed gifts as valuable items that should be kept, whereas the indigenous people saw them as something to give away so that they could receive other things in return. In addition, there was an understanding of reciprocity; when someone gives you something, you are expected to give back at some point in time. To sum it up, the author describes a market square where one can only bring what he or she has received from others to trade with others for what they have brought.

When people perceive something differently, they change their relationship with it. For example, when people see strawberries as gifts rather than commodities, the supply of strawberries remains plentiful because they’re treated like gifts. Therefore, we can reject the idea of a market economy and choose to live in a gift economy instead if possible.

Chapter 4: “An Offering”

The author recalls camping in the Adirondacks as a child. She and her father would make coffee every morning, but he would pour some of it into the lake, an offering to Tahawus—the highest peak in the Adirondacks. The author also learned that places are home to many people before she arrived and after she left them. Whenever they leave a campsite, they ensure that it is clean and ready for others to use. They also leave firewood for future campers.

The author’s parents take her and her siblings out in the natural world when other kids are at church. However, she grows up with a feeling of sadness or anger towards these trips as she gets older. This confusion eventually passes; later on, she meets people who feel similarly to how she does about nature.

The author’s father created a coffee ceremony, and she learned it from him. The author now understands that the ceremonies are not as important as the feelings they evoke. She says that these ceremonies connect her to lost ancestors and remind her of gifts and responsibilities. Years later, however, she finds out that her father invented the ceremony because he felt like he should do something for his guests. This is how ceremonies marry the mundane with sacredness.

Chapter 5: “Asters and Goldenrod”

The author recalls her first days as a freshman. She was the only woman in her class and wanted to know why asters and goldenrod look beautiful together. The professor disagreed with her, saying that it’s not science but “poetry”.

Like this summary? Have too much to read? You'll love my book summary product Shortform.

Shortform has the world’s best summaries of 1000+ nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What's special about Shortform:

Sound like what you've been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.

The laboratory is a different world. It asks different questions than the natural world and it’s more objective. The author finds herself fascinated by the scientific explanations of why plants grow so well together, even though they are very different from one another. She returns to her people with this new knowledge in hand and is able to explain their relationship better.

Chapter 6: “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”

The author describes the process of learning a language and immersing oneself in it. She mentions that by listening to the sounds of nature, you can learn its words. For example, she listens to a forest and learns an indigenous word for mushrooms pushing up from the ground overnight. She also says that many languages are being lost because they’re not being learned by children; this is why she tries to relearn her ancestors’ language.

Learning nouns is easy, but verbs are more difficult. Unlike languages like French and Spanish that divide words into different genders, Potawatomi divides words into animate and inanimate. This grammar of animacy isn’t found in English because it reduces all objects to humans or things. However, the author tries to teach students bilingualism by using both English and the grammar of animacy so they can learn “whole new ways of living”.

Chapter 7: “Maple Sugar Moon”

The Anishinaabe Original Man is named Nanabozho; he walked through the world and noted those who were following the instructions. He found a lazy village where people would lay beneath maple trees all day, drinking syrup. So, he took a bucket and diluted the sap. This is why today it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The author moves into a home in Fabius with maple trees in the yard. Her children want to make maple syrup; she turns to traditional methods (cheaper). The family eagerly awaits spring when they can begin tapping their own trees (when they know that spring has arrived), though their maples “have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring” so that they know when to bud and begin producing sap again each year on schedule. They begin tapping in April by finding “scars from past taps” already on their trees. They harvest the sap in buckets, build fires under them, and start cooking down the watery liquid into sweet amber-colored syrup. By morning little will have been produced since there’s not much time left before summer arrives. However, indigenous peoples froze this watery substance instead of boiling it over an open fire which made food available during wintertime when stores had dwindled away

The author and her daughters spend many nights boiling sap to make maple syrup. Now, the author’s daughters roll their eyes when they think about all that work. Nevertheless, the author imagines ways in which she can thank the trees for providing for her family.

Chapter 8: “Witch Hazel”

The author tells a story about her and her daughter picking berries in Kentucky. They meet an old woman named Hazel Barnett, who is the oldest person she’s ever seen. Her daughter worries that she might be a witch while they become friends with Hazel and another family member.

Hazel knows a lot about plants and nature. She was born nearby but moved in with Sam the night he suffered a heart attack. The author’s daughter feels like her mother misses her home as well, just like Hazel does. One night, Hazel asks to be driven back to her old house. They arrive and everything is frozen, left exactly as it was when she went away for the hospital visit. After that night, they return often. They visit neighbors who remember Hazel very well because of how close they were before she moved away from them all those years ago. On Christmas morning, the author’s daughter watches her mother prepare a surprise: Christmas at Hazel’s house! They clean up their old friend’s home and invite everyone over for dinner on Christmas Day! Everyone has fun decorating together while cooking great food and singing along to carols until it’s time to eat! When all is revealed at last, Hazel beams with joy and “moved through her house like a queen”.

The author’s family leaves Kentucky for a new life in the West. Saying good-bye to Hazel was hard, but her daughter remembers how they had made a special bond and comforted each other with their friendship.

Chapter 9: “A Mother’s Work”

The author’s husband leaves, and she moves her family to upstate New York. She finds a house with the requested purple bedroom for her daughters, who are happy there. They buy ducklings to be raised by the girls; however, only three survive into adulthood. The ducks bully the dog and leave frozen defecations on the porch. Despite their annoying nature, they cannot be killed because that would make them “bad mothers.”

A pond that used to be full of ducks and geese is now covered with algae. A baby goose gets trapped in the algae, but a scientist helps it out. She thinks about how she can help the rest of the lake by clearing away all that algae. She observes how it grows and realizes that there’s no way to get rid of it without getting rid of its source: chemicals from fertilizers and other pollutants.

One day, a woman decides to clean up her pond. She discovers hundreds of tadpoles in the pond and faces a moral dilemma. Should she save them or let them die? The author uses the dredged algae as compost for her garden. The process takes years, and it’s hard work; however, she is happy because of her attachment to the pond. After 12 years, the pond is nearly swimmable (but not quite). Her daughters are grown up now and living away from home; they know that their grandchildren will swim in this pond someday soon.

Chapter 10: “The Consolation of Water Lilies”

The author reflects on the unfairness of parenthood. Children grow up and leave home, even though parents spend their lives taking care of them. She has fed her daughters, pets, fruits and vegetables for years. She feels the same way when Larkin leaves home too.

The author buys a new kayak to deal with the departure of her daughter. She takes Larkin to college and then paddles through lilies, rushes, and deep water on the pond alone. After this experience, she drives home and finds wrapped presents waiting for her that are not for Larkin but rather for herself from “one year of mothering”.

Chapter 11: “Allegiance to Gratitude”

The author recalls the day when she receives a call from her daughter’s school informing her that her daughter refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The author remembers how in school, saying the pledge made her feel like part of something bigger than herself. Now she wonders why people still do this and considers it to be “exceedingly curious”. She lives on Onondaga land where they say an original prayer instead of saying the Pledge.

The author describes the Thanksgiving Address, which is a Native American tradition. It thanks fish, plants and berries for their contributions to human life. The address also reinforces the importance of service and wisdom in leadership roles. The author compares this to our current Pledge of Allegiance, which she finds cynical because it does not reflect the true values of America’s citizens. In contrast, she feels that the Thanksgiving Address expresses respect for all living things on Earth

The author continues the Address, thanking more people and things. She asks if she can write about it; of course, they say, as it’s supposed to be shared. The author longs for the day when everyone knows about this powerful speech and gives thanks in return.

Chapter 12: “Epiphany in the Beans”

While picking beans, the author thinks about “the secret of happiness”. She fills her basket and steps through the garden toward the kitchen, thinking about how she provides for people as a good mother would. The author then considers what else she might give back to the land that gives so much to her.

The author is a scientist by training, but she has to remind herself that gardens are not just about flowers and plants. They’re also spiritual places where people can connect with nature. She believes that loving the earth makes us better people because we get back love in return. This creates a positive feedback loop that’s like having a mother-child relationship with the world around us.

Linden has a garden in her home state, which is 3,000 miles away from the author. It makes Linden feel at home and she thinks that the plants love her back. In graduate school, Larkin works on an urban garden with at-risk youth to help them develop better relationships between themselves and their environment. The author states that one of the best ways to restore people’s relationship with land is to get involved in gardening because it “requires partnership”.

Chapter 13: “The Three Sisters”

The story of the three sisters is told from their individual perspectives. Plants tell their stories through what they do rather than what they say. The bean sprouts first and then grows along the ground, wrapping its shoots around the corn stems when it reaches a certain height. Meanwhile, the squash begins to spread away from other two sisters by growing broad leaves that protect against moisture loss and repel weeds.

Indigenous people call this type of gardening the Three Sisters, which is a trio of plants that grow together. They are able to survive harsh winters when they cooperate with each other. The author has her students grow their own garden in order to learn about cooperation and how it works below ground as well as above ground.

Three sisters complement each other in the garden and on the table. They provide a nutritional triad that can sustain a people. Similarly, they represent an emerging relationship between indigenous knowledge and Western science.

Chapter 14: “Wisgaak Gok Penagen: A Black Ash Basket”

The author learned how to make baskets from John Pigeon. The process begins by finding the right black ash tree, asking permission of the tree before cutting it down, stripping the bark off of it, and then splitting its layers into strips.

John teaches the author how to cut strips of bark from these trees even further. Before they move on, he stops and has the class consider what it means to waste all of this material. The author recalls a study she did into declining black ash tree populations, which basket makers are worried about because “overharvesting might be to blame.” However, instead of blaming overharvesting for diminishing numbers of baskets made from black ash trees, we should blame the decline in basket makers themselves. They’re cutting down too many trees and not leaving enough room for new ones to grow back. Black ash trees and basket makers have a symbiotic relationship with one another; both need each other in order to survive.

Ash trees are under threat from an invasive species of bug, a “rupture in the chain of relationship”. The government and indigenous people are trying to combat the threat but both sides have different ways of doing so. John teaches students how to start baskets but he says that “no one can tell you what to create” and he leaves them on their own. The author begins to weave, drawing parallels between baskets and “weaving well-being for land and people”. In her home, she sees many connections between things like pencils, jars, etc., with nature itself. She struggles to do this with plastic because it is very unnatural compared to those other objects made by humans out of natural materials such as wood or clay. She wonders whether we should be more connected with our natural surroundings since most things around us were once living organisms themselves before they were transformed into something else through human intervention (i.e., turning plants into lumber).

Chapter 15: “Miskos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass”

The author follows a woman named Lena through a meadow, who selects and collects sweetgrass stems until she has gathered a thick sheaf of shining stems. She is careful not to take more than she needs. The author has been brought in to investigate whether the various sweetgrass harvesting methods are harming the sweetgrass population. However, it’s hard for her to conflate traditional gift-giving with scientific rigor. Together with a student named Laurie, they devise an experiment to test the hypothesis and present their findings at faculty meetings before being turned down by committee members who say that there isn’t enough evidence yet about whether or not people’s behavior will change if harvesting practices are altered.

The author says that indigenous knowledge is a rite of passage for female scientists. They have to learn how to integrate it into scientific language in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community. The author and Laurie are working on an experiment, but they run into trouble because their committee members don’t believe their results. After two years of harvesting and evaluating sweetgrass, however, the results show that harvesting actually helps stimulate growth rather than harm it. This completely disproves the committee’s doubts about whether or not this technique works as well as traditional methods do. Laurie defends her thesis, and she gets applause from all the scientists who were present at her defense. She successfully combined indigenous knowledge with scientific language in order to reach a greater audience with her research findings.

Chapter 16: “Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide”

The author visits the gas station in her town. People from the community wait in line to get gas and talk to one another. The author plans on going sugaring with her friends, which is a maple syrup-making tradition. She has her census form in the car as well; this reminds her of a map that divides up bioregions by maple trees, which she thinks about when considering taxes and town committees.

The author visits a sugar house. The men are boiling the sap and discussing how they can use maple syrup in their food. They talk about how climate change is killing off maples, which will eventually lead to them becoming refugees because of it. Therefore, they need to fight against climate change before that happens.

Chapter 17: “The Honorable Harvest”

Crows follow the author across a field. She gathers leeks, and she is going to make dinner for her daughters when they come home this weekend. They are withered and flaccid, so she leaves with nothing. The author wonders how we can consume in a way that honors life, just like indigenous peoples had protocols of how much to take from nature. Today we have hunting regulations that help us do that too. With enough leeks for dinner, the author heads home

The Honorable Harvest is a code of ethics that the Tohono O’odham people live by. It’s like their version of the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t written down. The guidelines are: know your neighbors and take care of them; introduce yourself to new people; be accountable for what you do; ask permission before taking something from someone else’s land; abide by the answer even if it’s no, because they’re helping you out too, so don’t abuse this trust or they won’t help you in future; never take more than half of anything (so share with others); use whatever resources you gather respectfully and sustainably so those resources will last forever.

The Honorable Harvest is about the Native Americans. They believe that if they take more than what they need, then there will be nothing left for them to harvest next season. The author talks about how corn is a symbol of the Honorable Harvest and how it can disappear when people forget to give thanks for their bountiful crops.

The author tells the story of Lionel, a trapper who is upset with change in his society. He tries new professions but doesn’t like them as much as his old profession. Now he’s on the forefront of conservation efforts for certain species because of how much he has changed and grown from this experience. The Honorable Harvest may be able to help solve overconsumption problems by teaching people about traditional ways that they once knew but don’t anymore, such as planting food instead of buying it at a store or growing your own vegetables. The author believes she can make these changes too, even though she knows she won’t always follow through with them perfectly. She does well at home when preparing leeks (a vegetable) for dinner and re-planted some behind her house to grow more plants there so that the ground could have something to feed off again after being used for so long without any care from humans.

Chapter 18: “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho”

Nanabozho is a personification of the life force. He teaches people how to be human and carry out the Creator’s Original Instructions. The first instruction is to walk through the world so that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth, which we can learn from as Americans, who are immigrants in this country.

Nanabozho began his journey by walking toward the rising sun. He was worried about what he would eat and how to find his way, but he knew that it was important for him to learn from the world around him in order to be human. He learned everything he could about living as animals lived, eating raw food, and making tools. Nanabozho traveled all over the world learning from others so that he could become a better person.

The author learns that he has a twin brother, who is dedicated to bringing imbalance. The author vows to walk with humility so his brother can bring balance. While walking through the forest and thinking, the author comes across a round-leafed plant named White Man’s Footstep (common plantain). It was introduced by settlers but learned from indigenous people and became an “honored member of the community”. Other invasive plants have been destructive, yet this one offers a template for immigrants to integrate into our land.

Chapter 19: “The Sound of Silverbells”

In her first teaching job, the author takes her students to a local nature reserve in the South. She asks them to explain why certain plants are banded by color, and one student credits God. The author is used to hearing that answer from other teachers in this area of the country (the Bible Belt), but most of her students aren’t interested in religion or philosophy. Therefore, she tries something different: taking them on a three-day field trip into the wilderness so they can see for themselves how these colors form naturally.

The author and her students love hiking, camping and observing nature. They hike in the Smoky Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian chain. It is very hard work because they have to carry all their equipment with them on top of climbing a lot of mountains. Once, while delivering a lecture about an endangered species that lives in these mountains, one student asks if she’s religious. The author struggles to explain her beliefs to people who don’t understand what she does for a living; it makes her feel like she has failed as a teacher because she can’t teach people how much science means to her personally. After this trip, the author realizes that there is no way for someone else to know how much joy science brings you unless they experience it themselves. While driving home from the trip singing Amazing Grace helps everyone relax after such an exhausting day; however, when they sing it together, each person feels something different even though they’re saying exactly the same words. This teaches us that we all see things differently even if we believe those things are true.

Chapter 20: “Sitting in a Circle”

The author recalls how some students were reluctant to go to the Cranberry Lake Biological Station for five weeks. However, after a few days, they all got used to the biologist lifestyle and enjoyed it very much. In fact, one morning, one student named Brad was still looking glum. The author decided to take him on an outing in a canoe so that he could see how easy life is when you don’t have modern technology around you; swamp gas would bubble up around them as they waded through wetlands and pulled cattail plants just for food or twine.

The author details the different uses for cattails and jokes with students about nature’s Walmart. She then has them gather some cattails to make mats.

The author teaches a group of students how to make baskets. First, they go into the woods and find roots from white spruce trees. Then they untangle them and peel them before weaving the baskets. The author is humbled by their creative solutions for finding materials in nature when he realizes that these kids have never been taught this way before. On the last night of class, they all sing together as a thank you gift for teaching them how to make baskets.

Chapter 21: “Burning Cascade”

Salmon swim upstream to their birthplace and are caught by the indigenous people, but only after four days of fish have passed them. The First Salmon is prepared with ritual care and then nets are spread across the river for the other salmon. Smallpox killed many Native Americans in 1830s, which led to a decline in population. These empty areas were quickly colonized by settlers who grazed their cattle and fished without any respect or honor shown previously.

The author walks up the river where the salmon journeyed. She cries, hearing sadness in the land as if it was crying for its people. The author thinks about how important salmon festivals are to Native Americans and compares this with modern ceremonies such as weddings and high school graduations. She also thinks about efforts to restore the river by removing dams in 1976, which have helped bring back wetlands but haven’t brought back the salmon yet.

Chapter 22: “Putting Down Roots”

The author plants sweetgrass by the Mohawk River. She reflects on how the language is no longer spoken in this area. The disappearance of the language was aided by systematic and institutional forces. Theresa, a basket maker, helps Daniela with her thesis project about sweetgrass baskets. Making sweetgrass baskets has become synonymous with being Mohawk.

Tom Porter, a member of the Bear Clan and Daniela are working together to restore Mohawk culture. They have planted sweetgrass as a way to do this. The author has also worked with Tom on this project. This is because she feels that it’s important for indigenous people to be able to speak their own language in order for them to understand the world around them better. She compares her work with Tom and other native Americans who attended Carlisle Indian School (where they were forced to assimilate into white society) back in the nineteenth century, using similar tactics as those used at Carlisle Indian School (such as taking away their native languages).

Chapter 23: “Umbilicaria: The Belly Button of the World”

Lichen grows on boulders that were left behind by the last Ice Age. The author visits these life forms and considers their nature, which is a symbiotic relationship between two organisms in which both benefit from each other’s presence. She compares the alga and fungus of lichen to a married couple who act as one organism.

Scientists have struggled to replicate the natural formation of lichen in a lab setting. They only succeed when they severely curtail resources and force two organisms into partnership. The author inspects a rock and finds healthy populations, replete with dimpled skin that leads to the lichen’s nickname: belly button. Lichen can be made into an edible broth, but it is greatly affected by air pollution and human contamination.

Chapter 24: “Old-Growth Children”

The author and her group hike through Doug-Fir trees. She wonders why people can’t see the beauty in these giant trees, like she does. The forest is incredibly diverse; it has existed for thousands of years without being destroyed by humans. Native Americans lived off of the cedar, but now they are nearly gone because people cut them down to make money. It’s sad that we don’t understand how important these trees are to nature and ourselves until they’re gone completely.

The author recalls the story of Franz Dolp, who had walked through an old-growth forest and was inspired to restore it. He planted cedar seedlings; eventually he met a woman named Dawn, married her, and they worked together to restore the forest. As he learned how to plant trees, his project became more of a personal art than anything else. Now many people tend his young forest as it grows into an old-growth one again.

Chapter 25: “Witness to the Rain”

The author watches rain fall silently on moss in the Andrews Experimental Forest. She notes how water can move from a gas to a liquid state and listens for hyporheic flow. The rain is much bigger than expected, so she wonders why that is. Later, while trying to find shelter, she finds herself crawling under a log and feels content there. When studying droplets of water later by the river, time seems to disappear as she considers the rain that falls from above her head onto her hand below it.

Chapter 26: “Windigo Footprints”

The author walks across a field in snowshoes, hearing a distant shriek in the blizzard. He realizes that it is the Windigo—a legendary monster with yellow fangs and ice for a heart who can transform victims into monsters like itself by biting them. The legend of the Windigo developed because ancient people had to deal with starvation during harsh winters when hunting was difficult, so they were afraid of being transformed into cannibals due to hunger.

There are many reasons why the Windigo myth has persisted. It is a warning against greed, which can destroy both individuals and societies, as well as an explanation for environmental destruction. The myth of the Windigo now represents consumerism because economic systems that encourage growth have destroyed our planet.

Chapter 27: “The Sacred and the Superfund”

The Haudenosaunee people believe that water is a life sustainer. This belief was born out of the fact that they had to work together and unite in order to survive. They also have a Thanksgiving Address for water, which honors their ancestors who helped them form The Great Law of Peace. Today, though, there are environmental issues with Onondaga Lake because it has been polluted by industry and development.

All the land around Onondaga Lake is polluted. Swimming and fishing are prohibited. The water used to be clear, but now it’s brown like chocolate milk. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered federal troops to kill many thousands of Iroquois Indians. The population has been greatly reduced over time; they once had a large country that was divided into 4,300 acres (1,700 ha) after treaties with the US government were signed. Despite this loss of territory, the Iroquois have preserved their culture as best they can by filing lawsuits against governments and accepting cash payouts from casinos and settlements. They’ve also tried to heal relations between themselves and other people in the area who live near them. Allied Chemical Company (and its successors) have been forced to address pollution issues at Onondaga Lake, but their solutions weren’t good enough for some people. In 2010, a judge dismissed an action brought by several Indian nations seeking damages for environmental contamination caused by chemicals discharged from facilities owned or operated by Honeywell International Inc., Allied Chemical Corp., Solvay Chemicals Inc., General Electric Co., Sherwin-Williams Co.

The author visits Onondaga Lake. She sees a body hanging from a tree and a series of other horrific images, then she laughs at her initial fear. The author compares the ecological disasters at the lake to Haunted Hayride attractions; people know about this destruction but do nothing to fix it. The author believes that society can address environmental issues if they try hard enough. She revisits the lakeside often and sees encouraging signs: plants are returning, bringing ecosystems with them, thanks to scientists and volunteers who help out in these efforts. Although Onondaga Lake had been written off as “lost cause,” the Onondaga people never gave up on it; they have launched another restoration project based on traditional knowledge.

Chapter 28: “People of Corn, People of Light”

Stories are a powerful tool to restore our relationship with the land. In the Mayan creation story, humans were created to tell stories and praise the Gods. However, they weren’t satisfied with their creations because they were ugly or didn’t appreciate them. Finally, they created people who could sustain the earth by growing corn and then grinding it into fine meal mixed with water.

The author believes that indigenous stories are important, but she also thinks that a culture must write its own new stories about the ecosystem. The people who translate science into language for the public should think carefully about how they communicate their ideas because it might be difficult to understand what they’re saying. The author hopes for a world guided by science and an indigenous worldview.

Chapter 29: “Collateral Damage”

The author listens to news reports from Baghdad listing the collateral damage in the city. Switching off the radio, she exits her house and drives to Labrador Hollow where salamanders are stirring from their hibernation. The animals cross a dark road, but one year they were unable to do so because of an explosion that occurred on that road. The author and her daughter follow them when they return each year to a pond where they were born. There, dozens of salamanders froth water as part of their mating ritual; it causes bubbles which cover most of the water’s surface.

Amphibians are among the animals most affected by habitat changes. They are often victims of pollution and war, which cause much collateral damage around the world. A group of people appears with torches on a road at night to count animals that cross it. The author feels powerless because she can’t do anything about these issues or help in any way, so she drives home listening to news reports from Iraq on the radio.

Chapter 30: “Shkitagen: People of the Seventh Fire”

The author remembers her father teaching her how to start a fire. He took it seriously and made sure she knew the proper way to do it. Fire represents virtue, so he wanted his daughter to know how important that was. The author’s father is still teaching people about starting fires at age 83; he lists the different kinds of fires: campfires, wildfires, controlled burns for renewal in nature, and medicinal plants produced by burning wood. He also mentions sacred fire within us.

The Anishinaabe people believe that there are seven fires, and each fire corresponds to a period in their history. The first era began on the Atlantic coast and ended when they arrived at the Great Lakes. Later, white men came from the East with ships; some of them were friendly while others wore black robes and carried books. A prophecy said that if they did not destroy the Anishinaabe then, it would be too late for them to survive another attack later on. However, a prophet predicted that one day a new group of people would come who had a sacred mission to fulfill. It seems like this is happening now because many young people are learning about their language and culture again so they can preserve it for future generations.

The passage is about a prophecy from the bible. The author believes that we have reached a point where humanity has to choose between two paths. One path leads to destruction while the other one leads to salvation and life.

Chapter 31: “Defeating Windigo”

The author visits her medicine woods, which is a place where she goes to collect plants. She notices that her neighbor has been logging in the area, but he hasn’t followed the guidelines of Honorable Harvesting. In all likelihood, her medicine plants will not survive because they have been logged on. The author worries about protecting “what I love against the Windigo”. She remembers stories about people who have tried to fight and kill the Windigo and views modern economies as Windigo economies.

The author feels that the Windigo is a result of the modern economy. Therefore, she recommends changes to the economy and ways to overcome this problem. She admits that it’s not easy to do so, but she prepares her medicines as best as possible. The Windigo comes in and drinks all of them at once, making him sick with pollution everywhere. Then, he needs healing medicine which makes him feel better again. The author sits beside him and tells him a story about how people are grateful for what they have now instead of being greedy like before when there was no gratitude or greed.

Chapter 32: “Epilogue Returning the Gift”

Summer is a time to celebrate and give gifts. People gather together to have fun, dance, and make music. The author imagines that the world operates in a similar way; we are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity. She wants nothing more than for people to thank the world for its gifts through song. She imagines everyone dancing as an acknowledgement that they’re alive and grateful for it.

Braiding Sweetgrass Book Summary, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Enjoy this summary?

Subscribe to get my next book summary in your email.

Want to get smarter, faster?

Subscribe to my newsletter to get free book summaries and startup notes.