Braiding Sweetgrass


Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall Kimmerer grew up in upstate New York, surrounded by nature and learning about her family’s Potawatomi heritage—her grandfather was forced to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which sought to entirely strip Native children of their culture and integrate them into white society. Kimmerer majored in Botany at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and went on to receive a master’s degree and PhD at the University of Wisconsin. She is known for teaching “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” a practice combining scientific observation with cultural and spiritual knowledge. She also specializes in the study of moss ecology, and her first book was called Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Her second book, Braiding Sweetgrass, became a bestseller despite originally being released only by a small nonprofit publisher. Kimmerer, now an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, currently teaches at ESF and lives and writes in upstate New York.
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Historical Context of Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass primarily focuses on the state of the contemporary world, but it also draws deeply from Indigenous American history and traditions. Notable historical events that Kimmerer focuses on include the Trail of Tears, when the U.S. Government forcefully displaced around 60,000 Native Americans to reservations, resulting in a massive loss of land and thousands of deaths. Through the story of her own grandfather, Kimmerer also discusses the influence of Native American boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Over the course of almost four decades, more than 10,000 Native children attended Carlisle (usually through compulsion or threats), where they were separated from their families and subjected to intense psychological manipulation, being punished for any expression of their culture and even forced to change their names. Braiding Sweetgrass also focuses on the history of Onondaga Lake, which was a sacred place to the people of the Onondaga Nation and part of their territory until it was seized by the state of New York in 1788. The lake then became the site of intense industrial growth and was massively polluted by industrial waste, largely from the Allied Chemical Corporation, over the course of almost 200 years. Various environmental efforts, many of them led by Native leaders and activists, have since tried to clean up the lake, but with mixed success.

Other Books Related to Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass blends elements of science writing, memoir, and Indigenous American philosophy in its exploration of plants and the human relationship to the natural world. Its contemplative and observational aspects resemble the work of Annie Dillard, most notably Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, while its study of botany falls in the tradition of science writing for a popular audience, joining plant-focused books like Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory also focuses on plants (especially trees) as characters in their own right, echoing many of Kimmerer’s views through the medium of fiction. Other major contemporary Indigenous American writers include Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Louise Erdrich (Plague of Doves), and Joy Harjo (Eagle Poem).
Key Facts about Braiding Sweetgrass
  • Full Title: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
  • When Published: 2013
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Nature Writing
  • Setting: Various settings around the world, but mostly Upstate New York, the Pacific Northwest, and Oklahoma
  • Climax: The story of defeating the Windigo
  • Antagonist: The Windigo, capitalism, human greed
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Braiding Sweetgrass

Surprise Hit. Braiding Sweetgrass was originally published by Milkweed Editions, an independent non-profit publisher, and has since gone through 18 re-printings and been translated into nine languages.

Teaching. Kimmerer is a professor at her alma mater, ESF, teaching courses like “Land and Culture” and “Ecology of Mosses.”