“Unite and heal? I don’t wanna!” the rebels cry.
SO WHAT NOW?
It may be time to read a potentially life-altering book: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A brilliant scientist, decorated professor, and accomplished writer, the author is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes that the indigenous wisdom, stories and life experiences braided within her book “are meant to heal our relationship with the world.” They may also help unite and heal America.
I first referred to the book in my early December post titled “The Rise of Indigenous Wisdom.” I had read only six chapters at the time, was very impressed and fully intended to continue and write about it again. However, all the political rancor was so distracting and depressing that my reading and writing both stalled.
However, a few days ago, a robin began visiting the bare apricot tree in my patio. It seemed a premature sign of spring and of the greening and the hope that come in with it. Inspired to continue reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I began to see a new path for my writing.
I would like to detour here now to explain why I call Robin by her first name. I recently tuned into a speech she gave to the Bioneers in 2014, the year after her book came out. Due to her impressive credentials, I had expected her to be a bit intimidating at the podium. However, she seemed very warm and endearing, not likely to be offended by my familiarity.
A PRICELESS GIFT
Robin is now 68 years old, and her book covers experiences from the time she was a child playing in the woods of New York until it was published eight years ago. However, one has a sense of a foundation profoundly deeper–the history of the Potawatomi people.
In outside research, I learned that their ancestors originated along the Atlantic coast and then moved into areas around Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior. They evolved into three tribes, the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi that would eventually become known as the Council of Three Fires.
The French were the first of the invading Europeans to encroach on the land of the Potawatomi people in 1615, but they ceded it when the British defeated them in the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Then came the American Removal Period (1830-1840) when the Potawatomi were moved south and west to reservations in Oklahoma, many dying on their journey that became known as the “trail of death.”
Through all the history braided into this book, I realized that the indigenous people had acquired a depth of knowledge about Planet Earth that scientific knowledge can’t match. As an ecologist and a Potawatomi, Robin Kimmerer has both. She also reflects a spiritual connection and a love, gratitude, and respect for Planet Earth far beyond typical American expression.
CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE WOODS
Robin is the mother of two daughters, and her maternal nature shows up in the ways she relates to the offspring, let’s say, of Mother Earth. When harvesting something like leeks in the wild, she does it gently, mindful of the other beings that depend on it and the needs of its fellows. She may pause and ask permission before taking a plant. If she doesn’t sense it, she will move on. Gratitude is afoot for every gift as well as the hope to find some way to reciprocate.
She also shares a story about a similar consciousness manifesting in a young man. The setting is an October day, and men are sharing their hunting experiences. One named Oren describes the trek to his favorite hunting spot. He sees one deer after another, ten perhaps altogether, including a doe and a three-pointer, who don’t see him. He never lifts his rifle. “I only take one bullet with me,” he says.
He is waiting for something. Finally he sees it. A buck walks into the clearing and looks him in the eye. It knows full well why he’s there, Oren says. “I know he’s the one and so does he.” A subtle nod is exchanged. The deer turns his flank toward him. “He gave himself to me,” Oren says. “That’s what I was taught. Take only what is given and then treat it with respect.”
He goes on to say, “That’s why we thank the deer as the leader of the animals, for its generosity in feeding the people.” Demonstrating gratitude for their way of being “is a force that keeps the world in motion.”
THE HONORABLE HARVEST
Oren’s anecdote appears in the chapter on “The Honorable Harvest.” It is about the guidelines indigenous people have developed to define ways to promote sustainability and justice within the natural world. One of the codes Oren’s story illustrates is: Take only that which is given–meaning made readily available. This also relates to the taking of resources believed to be an important cause of climate change. Coal is one of these.
Robin points out that “Taking coal buried deep in the earth, for which we must inflict irreparable damage, violates every precept of the code.” Coal is not given. On the other hand, she says that “The wind blows every day, every day the sun shines, every day the waves roll against the shore, and the earth is warm beneath us. We can understand these renewable sources of energy as given to us, since they are the sources that have powered life on this planet for as long as there has been a planet. We need not destroy the earth to make use of them.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE SEVENTH FIRE
The Potawatomi became known as the “keepers of the fire,” and Robin explains that their history has been divided into seven “fire eras” that include “the places where we have lived, and the events and teachings that surrounded them.” Different prophecies helped define those eras.
The people of the Fourth Fire were told that “light-skinned people” would sail in from the east with ways of knowing that would create a great nation. However, another prophet of that era warned that these people might be greedy for the riches of the land and poison the fish and make the water unfit to drink. Perhaps the prophets foresaw two faces of one people.
The modern Potawatomi are the people of the Seventh Fire, and Robin sounds like something of a prophet herself as she describes their sacred duty. She says that they are not so much going forward as turning back to gather up everything left behind on their journey–“the fragments of land, tatters of language, bits of song, stories, and sacred teachings” dropped along the way.
We are at a crossroad, Robin says, and all over Indian land, the people are following this path to try to restore the wisdom of their teachings, the richness of their culture, the health of the people, and their beautiful landscapes. This awakening is afoot all over the world, she adds. People are beginning to see that we are at a crossroad. One path is soft and green, a path you could walk on bare feet. The other is black and hard with cinders that would cut the feet.
That black path suggests the horrific wildfires that are coming in with climate change. But one also imagines the trash and the dying plants and wildlife that would be visible on either side. Robin says that ecologists estimate it would take seven planets to sustain the lifeways we’ve created. “And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace have not brought us contentment.”
As I move toward closing, my mind goes back to the opening challenge to unite and heal. Perhaps this relates to the Eighth Fire foreseen in Potawatomi prophecy. It was to be “the final fire of peace and brotherhood, forging the great nation that was foretold long ago.”
The possibility of brotherhood seems an illusion in this time when relationships are being fractured everywhere by our focus on differences. However, as Americans get more and more in touch with the environmental detail of this perilous moment, more and more of us may unite to protect and restore our homeland. Our diverse gifts, braided together in dedication to a common goal, could begin to heal us as a nation–and strike sparks to light the Eighth Fire.
Is it time?