Date November 5, 2022
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‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ author: ‘We haven’t loved the land enough’

At the end of a three-day residency at Brown, bestselling author and Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer took part in a panel discussion focused in part on how Indigenous knowledge can help address climate change.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — If there’s one thing Robin Wall Kimmerer wants people to realize about the fight against climate change, it’s that love is more powerful than fear.

“One of the things that concerns me about a lot of environmental messaging is that it’s so fear-based,” the Indigenous botanist and educator told a rapt crowd at Brown University on Friday, Nov. 4. “We don’t always act upon it, but we know how to love each other, and be grateful for each other, and be in reciprocity with each other. We can extend those human gifts to our non-human relatives. I think we’re in this place [of rapid climate change] because we haven’t loved the land enough. What needs to change is a greater expanse of how we channel that love.”

Kimmerer, the bestselling author of the essay collection “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” spoke at Brown as part of a panel discussion featuring Indigenous land-based practitioners. Joining her on the panel, co-hosted by Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, were three Indigenous experts from across New England: Keely Curliss, a Nipmuc leader in the Indigenous farming movement; Elizabeth James-Perry, an Aquinnah Wampanoag artist focused on Northeastern woodland culture; and Rashad Young, a Mashantucket Pequot performer, maker, researcher and teacher. The discussion was moderated by Bathsheba Demuth, an associate professor of history and environment and society at Brown.

The panel was just one element of Kimmerer’s three-day residency at Brown, which included discussions on community-engaged research with University scholars of Native American history and culture, a meeting with students and faculty focused on decolonizing science and technology, time to connect with Indigenous students and employees, and a lecture titled “Restoration and Reciprocity: Healing Relationships with the Natural World.” Like that Nov. 3 lecture, the panel discussion the next night drew more than 200 people from Brown and local communities, packing the top floor of Pembroke Hall.

Throughout the conversation, one message rang loud and clear: The fate of the land is in everyone’s hands, and with dozens of generations of Indigenous wisdom on our side, that doesn’t have to be a negative thing: “In a time of climate change, that’s one of the most important things we can do… recognize our agency. This does not have to happen unless we’re complicit with it.”

Kimmerer — who recently won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant — used as an example one successful project at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where she directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Begun in 2011, the project, called Helping Forests Walk, has paired SUNY scholars with local Indigenous people to learn how to safely and successfully move plants from one place to another to increase their resiliency and proliferation, preventing their demise due to warming climates. 

The project proved that “we can move at the speed of climate change to help our relatives who can’t,” Kimmerer said, and that human interference doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes. “We have gifts as human people that we can give back to the living world.”

Curliss, who grew up just north of the Rhode Island border and today runs a farm in Petersham, Massachusetts, added that getting to know the local environment’s not-entirely-predictable seasons and rhythms can not only help people avoid feeling “doom and gloom” about climate change, but also confer important knowledge that may help them adapt and thrive later.

“In the last five or six years, I’ve seen extraordinary drought… in contrast with the [latest season of] extraordinary rain,” Curliss said. “I’m watching the plants and leaves [come and go], I’m watching the waterways go up and down. Rather than thinking of it as ‘doom,’ I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to have to be ready for, and what am I going to have to let go of?’”

James-Perry agreed. She uses milkweed to make jewelry, but she’s had less to work with these days: The increasingly hot and dry summers have proven too overwhelming for the wild plants, which rely on moisture and cool nights to survive. Yet even with these unpleasant changes, she sees reason to stay hopeful. She pointed to an abundance of wild rice that grew in New England’s waterways after Industrial Revolution-era mills shut their doors, their dams began to disintegrate, and the water was allowed to meander freely.

“Seeds can literally sit in soils for hundreds of years,” she said. “Birds and animals are great for transporting seeds, too. So I think that, while there’s a lot of [negative] impact and destruction, there’s also a possibility of really great regeneration in the right conditions.”

“ In a time of climate change, that’s one of the most important things we can do… recognize our agency. This does not have to happen unless we’re complicit with it. ”

Robin Wall Kimmerer Author, 'Braiding Sweetgrass'

Young, who cultivates his own tobacco and carves musical instruments out of wood from native trees, said Indigenous knowledge contains endless lessons on responsible forestry that, if applied, could greatly increase the world’s resiliency in the face of climate change. He thought back to the moments he spent in the Connecticut forests as a child, wondering how his ancestors managed to hunt with so many leaves at their feet. The loud crunch of the leaves, he observed, caused birds and deer to scatter instantly.

Then he realized: “The controlled burning my ancestors used to do made the forest more like a park,” he said. “It would have been much quieter; there wouldn’t have been leaves all over the ground. And the burning encourages fruits and nuts and grasses to come up. I think these traditional ways might need to be brought back.”

Kimmerer said that Indigenous languages, too, confer important lessons about deference to the land that are important to heed today. She said that in Neshnabémwen, the native language of her Potawatomi ancestors, the Earth is called “the realm of the trees.” It is, notably, not named after a person who lived or led there.

“I love the humility: We’re not going to name it after ourselves, we’re going to name it after the leading being to create this home for us,” Kimmerer said. “I really think about the garden we’ve been given, with all these medicine plants and trees. I feel most at home when I’m… sitting and listening and learning what the land has to teach me every day.”