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SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D. is a leading indigenous environmental scientist and writer in indigenous studies and environmental science at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She holds a Bachelor of Science from her current employer, and a Master of Science and Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A widely published author and recent speaker at the United Nations, Dr. Kimmerer spoke with the Hownikan about her work, both inside and outside the classroom.

Where are you from?

“I am from the maple forests of upstate New York and live today in the countryside outside of Syracuse, New York where I’m a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. I live in the ancestral homelands of the Onondaga Nation, who are now my neighbors.”

What Potawatomi family are you from?

“I am from the Vieux/Johnson family. My immediate family ended up in New York State, by way of the boarding schools – as my grandfather was sent from Oklahoma to Carlisle Indian School and then chose to settle here after leaving Carlisle.”

You’re a founder for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. In layman’s terms, what does that mean? What practical work does the CNPE do?

“Part of our work lies in the realm of bringing indigenous knowledge into the education of mainstream environmental science and natural resources students, who for the most part are not aware of the ways that indigenous knowledge can contribute to environmental problem solving. So we are trying to ‘indigenize’ the science curriculum by exposing them to indigenous environmental values, practices and philosophies as potential approaches for sustainability.

“Science is a powerful tool for environmental problem solving, but it’s not the only one. Traditional ecological knowledge offers important insights as well, based on our people’s long knowledge of how to live sustainably on the land. Many of our environmental issues lie at the intersection of nature and culture, so we use cultural knowledge as a partner to western scientific tools to envision new environmental solutions. Traditional knowledge includes ethics and values related to the environment, of course and many environmental decisions are values-based. We highlight the environmental accomplishments and leadership of indigenous nations, as well as discuss the serious challenges faced as lands in Indian Country that experience environmental threats.

“Students can now earn a minor in indigenous issues and the environment. We hope to train the next generation of environmental professionals who are well equipped to serve as allies to indigenous nations in environmental problem solving. Our graduates should be well versed in treaty rights and traditional ecological knowledge – as well as with the tools of environmental science.

“We also work in increasing access to higher education in environmental fields for Native students, by educational outreach to young Native students through an annual Native Earth Environmental Youth Camp and by programs in the schools. We offer fellowships and mentor programs for Native college students and are working in partnership with several tribal colleges to provide research and education opportunities for tribal youth in areas such as climate change resilience and forest management. We need more Native scientists and
CNPE supports students in that goal.

“Our third major area is collaborative environmental work with indigenous nations. We jointly create programs related to ecosystem restoration, plant knowledge revitalization,  environmental education-driven by the needs of the tribes who request assistance with environmental protection. “The center website is www.esf.edu/nativepeoples and we encourage Native students to contact us for thinking about careers in natural resources and the environment.”

You are also an advocate for the restoration of peoples’ relationships with the land. Why is this important, especially in terms of Native American communities?

“Some of my work as a scientist has involved restoration of damaged ecosystems, but what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not just the land which is broken, but our relationship with land. We can’t hope to restore land, if we don’t also heal our relationship with nature. Restore respect and care and compassion – to remember that the land is our sacred responsibility – and our teacher.

“The restoration of relationships to land is especially important in Native American communities for a whole host of reasons. For example, our Potawatomi language and culture is deeply rooted in the land, revitalizing language is part of restoring relationship to land. Our traditional diet is also a reflection of our land and our knowledge of the land. We know that the shift from the land-based traditional diet to the modern industrial diet of processed foods is causing many health issues, such as the epidemic in diabetes. The Food Sovereignty
movement is a powerful way of restoring relationship with land in Indian Country. Land is strongly tied to our identity as Native people, so knowing the land is knowing yourself and your culture.

“And besides, when you know the plants, you just feel more at home wherever you go, you know that you’ll be taken care of. I write a lot about gratitude in my book and gratitude is one of our first cultural responsibilities to the life-giving land.”

You’re a prodigious author, but what was the motivation in writing your latest award-winning publication, “Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants”?

“My motivation for writing this book comes from the sense that because plants have taken care of our people for so long, I needed to speak up on their behalf, so that people would fall in love with plants again and honor all that they give us.

“People have forgotten that plants were once regarded as our oldest teachers. I wanted to help people remember that and to think about how we might be better students. The  stories shared in “Braiding Sweetgrass” are based in the teachings of why we braid wiingaashk (sweetgrass). This sacred plant, is recognized as the “hair of Mother Earth” and so we braid it as a tangible sign of our loving care for the earth. That braid has three strands-which I think of in the book as three different kinds of knowledge: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the knowledge of the plants themselves.

“As a university professor and a plant scientist I am all too well aware that indigenous knowledge is not often valued or included in environmental decision making. I wanted to change that, because the indigenous worldview of respect and reciprocity carries the values that we need to survive. So each story is woven of all three kinds of thinking, indigenous, scientific and botanical- and especially my experience as a Native woman trying to bring these ways together. Many of the stories in the book were shared with me by wonderful and generous Potawatomi people, for which I am deeply grateful.”

Tell me a bit about your recent testimony before the United Nations General Assembly.

“I was deeply honored to be invited to speak at the UN in commemoration of International Mother Earth Day in April 2015. The message that I carried was based on an integration of sustainability science and the wisdom of traditional ecological knowledge of native peoples. It was a very moving and humbling experience to speak of the significance of indigenous environmental philosophy before such a powerful audience.

“I was thinking about how the Carlisle Indian School, which my grandfather attended, was intended of course to eliminate indigenous ways of thinking – and how amazing that his granddaughter was now being asked to share indigenous knowledge, as an inspiration for protecting Mother Earth.

“I remember an elder once saying that we have protected our traditional knowledge against so many assaults and that one day the whole world would need it. In this time of accelerating climate change and the Age of the Sixth Extinction, we know that traditional teachings of care for the land and water, of respect for the living earth are more critical than ever.

“I spoke primarily about the traditional teachings of reciprocity, the theme of my book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” of how we cannot just endlessly take from the earth without giving back. I tried to make a case – both scientific and ethical – for the many ways that we humans can reciprocate the gifts of the Earth.

“A major theme was that member states should support and protect indigenous peoples land and knowledge in their homelands.

“A quote that delegates responded to especially was ‘Human beings were given the abilities and the responsibility to care for the rest of creation. When we look about us at the beauty of the Earth, do we want to be the one species that threw it all away? Do we want to be the ones who violated the fundamental laws of reciprocity? As we give thanks for the Earth, will we live in such a way that the Earth can be grateful for us?'”

To learn more about Dr. Kimmerer’s work, visit the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment www.esf.edu/nativepeoples.