In nineteenth century America, Native Americans in the Eastern United States were forcibly relocated from their ancestral homes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Those who remained were forced to abandon their languages, customs, and beliefs and adopt Western European sensibilities. In the process, we quashed their deep reverence for the land and the way of life that kept it healthy and whole.
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer calls for a return to Native American sensibilities in response to sustained assaults on the delicate ecosystem on which all life depends. As a botanist, she leverages the scientific method to assess the environmental cost of our inattention to the environment. As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, she brings her people’s stories, traditions, and practices to bear on reorienting our thinking and finding a path toward restoration. The book is a delightful and evocative read.
She begins with the story of Skywoman who fell to the earth and worked collaboratively with all of the creatures who preceded her to co-create the world. Each contributed gifts to benefit the common good; some made sacrifices to benefit the greater whole. The story tells us that nothing comes into being without cost. We are admonished to respond with gratitude and a sense of responsibility for what has been given.
While origin stories may vary across tribes, the central tenet of connection to the land and all of its creature remains. Native Americans belong to the land in a way that sustains them physically and spiritually. It provides them with the bounty of its harvest; it is the great teacher that counsels them on how to live in harmony with creation and with one another. Here are some of its admonitions.
Create a home where all life can flourish. All things have a purpose. Individuals, animals, sea creatures, plants, insects, waterways, and elements of nature bestow distinctive gifts that contribute to the well-being of the whole. Never interfere with the sacred purpose of another being. Never imperil any part of this intricate web lest you jeopardize your own survival. Practice kindness and compassion.
See the world as a gift. Live in acknowledgement of an earth that feeds you, quenches your thirst, and provides warmth and shelter. Stop and take note of these rich endowments. Give thanks. When you abandon gratitude, the gifts abandon you.
Pair gratitude with the practice of reciprocity and responsibility. While the earth’s gifts are given freely, they require attentive caregiving to sustain their bounty. Just about everything we use or consume comes at the expense of another life. Reciprocity resolves the moral tension of taking life by returning something of value to restore the balance of nature. Responsibility encourages life-sustaining practices that ensure a healthy ecosystem across the generations.
Reconnect with the landscape by planting a garden. Be mindful of the ways in which food production results from a partnership between the land and its nutrients, the sun, the rain, and the human caregiver who sows the seeds and watches over their development. Consider what it takes to keep this garden healthy and productive year after year. As you work in the garden, let it feed you in body as well as spirit.
Participate in honorable harvests by taking only what you need and using everything you take. Engage in practices that bring forth long term benefits for people and plants. Never take more than half; leave the rest to maintain the health and vigor of wild life. Celebrate and give thanks for every mouthful.
Live in community. Keep one another accountable for your commitments to honor the whole of life. Use ceremony to codify what matters and bind the community together.
In all things, be vigilant against greed. Do not be fooled into thinking that belongings are more meaningful than belonging. Restraint, sharing, and stewardship are essential for survival. Stand against an economy that destroys the earth to profit the greedy; demand one that aligns with life.
Leave the world better than when you found it.
Read the book… or, better yet, check out the audiobook and listen while Dr. Kimmerer shares her wonderful stories and words of wisdom.