Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology as well as the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment — both at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member and descendant of the Vieux and Johnson families has a doctorate in plant ecology. In 2013, she released her second book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which became a New York Times best seller. The MacArthur Foundation named Dr. Kimmerer a MacArthur Fellow in 2022.
How long have you been studying biology, ecology and the environment?
From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to wander around and was always curious and delighted about the plant world and birds and bugs and everyone. And I had the great good fortune of growing up in the country and here in the northern forests, which of course, are part of our heritage. I live here today in Haudenosaunee Territory (in present-day New York). But this is “dish with one spoon” territory. It’s the same biome, the same ecosystems as our original homeland as well.
Why have biology and ecology been satisfying academically, especially as an Indigenous person?
I reflect on the fact that my grandfather was a survivor of the Carlisle Indian School where his way of knowing our traditional ecological knowledge was stripped away. And so it has been, in a sense, growing from that story, growing from that painful history, a personal mission to bring Western science and Indigenous science together, really for our shared concerns of how it is that we care for land. My Potawatomi history has been a major influence in my work. And so, at our Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, our real goal is to combat the erasure of Indigenous knowledge and in fact bring it into partnership with Western science.
The first edition of Braiding Sweetgrass came out a decade ago this year, selling over 1 million copies in that time. How would you describe its impact since then?
There is a real longing in the public to heal our relationship with land. There’s a real longing for justice, I think, around Indigenous lands. And that’s a really hopeful sign that so many people are picking up this book. … What’s happening is the book is moving through the world by individual people gifting it to others because they think, “Well, this is important. I think we all need to be thinking about these things.” And that’s the way sweetgrass is passed around, too. It doesn’t go by wind-blown seed. It goes hand to hand of people giving a little transplant to the next so it can be nurtured and spread. So that coincidence, if you will, between how the book spreads and how the plant spreads feels right to me.
You’ve been receiving feedback on the book for many years now. What do you feel like are a couple of major points from it that people return to again and again?
For non-Native readers, I would say, is gratitude for bringing forward another way of being, for illuminating the Indigenous worldview, which has been so erased from most of our educational system and certainly public information. So, folks being more aware of Indigenous science and the wisdom attached to it is something that I hear a great deal. But perhaps more importantly than that is that I think of Braiding Sweetgrass as a call to action. It’s an invitation to say, “Well, if you see the world as a gift, if you’re grateful for the gifts of segmekwé, of Mother Earth, then what are you going to do about it?” … And that’s why I think we’re seeing gardens and music and school programs and plays and books and poems and environmental actions that are inspired by it because that’s what it’s asking.
While you were writing it, did you have the idea for it to be a source of inspiration?
I thought about the fact that what we are really in need of is healing, not only land but healing our relationship to land. And then I look at our Potawatomi values and our Potawatomi teachings and say, “They are medicinal. They are the medicine that keeps us as people resilient and growing and connected to land. And might that not be the medicine that could help heal relationship to the land?” In my early notebooks, I write, “I want this book to be medicine.” It’s fine to want something, but I’m so grateful that people have been receptive to that medicine and then began making their own medicine and sharing it widely. Metaphorically speaking.
You were recently named a MacArthur Fellow as well. Tell me more.
To me it was really affirming in that it meant that somebody has been paying attention. Somebody sees the work and wants to invite more of that. To me, that’s the wonderful power of the award. … It’s liberating for sure to have that capacity. But also, I feel deeply responsible to that award and to the opportunity that’s been given me.
What have you been thinking about since you were notified?
I have been working on another book, and because of my work as a professor, as a researcher, as a speaker, I haven’t given it the time that it needs to come into the world. The MacArthur is, for me, a kind of affirmation to say, “Give yourself the time to create this new book,” which is very deeply grounded in our traditional story as well as our traditional science.
I have been working and thinking for some years with others about the Potawatomi Plant Protection Network, which is an idea that we brought forth at a (Potawatomi) Gathering. And I’m really interested to think about how I could use the MacArthur Award as a lever, as a vehicle for protecting our plant knowledge and our plants, particularly in a time of climate change. A lot of our plants are threatened by climate change. And how could we function as a Potawatomi nation from people in the south to people in the north to help our plants move, to share plant knowledge, to create cultural plant reserves?
What is your next book going to be about?
Broadly speaking, it’s going to be about the personhood of plants. In our old teachings, we know that the plants are not natural resources. They are our relatives. They are our teachers. And Potawatomi people are embedded in that kind of thinking. … My hope is to really awaken for my readers the fact that plants themselves have culture, plants are leaders, plants are teachers. And all of that contributes to understanding the new rights of nature movement so that once we really feel deeply the personhood of other plants, then the leap toward the rights of nature becomes almost intuitive.
What are some of the biggest takeaways for Tribal members who reconnect with the land?
Reconnecting with our landscapes, particularly our original homeland, puts us in contact with the teachings of the land. When you think about the fact that our language is rooted in the land, that our spirituality is rooted in the land, that our history is there, and therefore so is our future. Reconnecting with the land for me is a really profound way of connecting with our culture, with our ancestry and with our responsibilities to the future. … Without the land, we are lonely. Without the land, we don’t have our teacher and our foundation.
Learn more about Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work at robinwallkimmerer.com.