A World Where Science and Indigenous Wisdom Collide: Some Food for Thought on Earth Day

By Savita Joshi

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s pres­ence is mag­net­ic. Step­ping out to the podi­um at the 2014 Bioneers Con­fer­ence – an annu­al forum for top­ics like cli­mate change and human rights – her sil­ver hair hangs loose­ly, fram­ing a pair of leather ear­rings dec­o­rat­ed with small pink flow­ers. She greets the crowd with a large smile, and when she speaks, the room falls silent and the audi­ence lis­tens closely:

“Let us begin today with grat­i­tude … of food to eat, of sweet air to breathe this morn­ing, the pre­cious­ness of water, the com­pan­ion­ship of clouds, and geese, and sug­ar maples. Grat­i­tude for each oth­er, for the priv­i­lege of our work togeth­er, and for the orig­i­nal peo­ples in whose home­land we meet, and for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the earth.”

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Such poet­ic and ten­der, prayer-like words come as a sur­prise for some when they real­ize that these are the words of a sci­en­tist and professor.

Robin Wall Kim­mer­er is not your aver­age envi­ron­men­tal biol­o­gist. She’s not sim­ply a sci­en­tist and pro­fes­sor at SUNY Col­lege of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and Forestry, she’s also a mem­ber of the Cit­i­zen of Potawato­mi Nation, a fed­er­al­ly rec­og­nized tribe in Okla­homa. It’s her Indige­nous knowl­edge that makes Kim­mer­er such a breath of fresh air in the sci­en­tif­ic world. In her book, Braid­ing Sweet­grass, Kim­mer­er blends these two parts of her­self, invit­ing the read­er into a world where Indige­nous knowl­edge and plant sci­ence cohab­i­tate.   

Kimmerer’s love and respect for her “old­est teach­ers,” the plants, is pal­pa­ble. She was raised in the coun­try­side of Upstate New York, and it was here that she ini­tial­ly formed a strong con­nec­tion and deep rev­er­ence for the nat­ur­al world. This con­nec­tion was fur­ther strength­ened when her par­ents start­ed to recon­nect to their Potawato­mi her­itage. Kim­mer­er remem­bers how every morn­ing on their camp­ing trips her father would make an offer­ing of cof­fee to Tahawas, the high­est peak in the Adiron­dack Moun­tains. She recalls how much of an impact this rit­u­al had on her: “When we call a place by name, it is trans­formed from wilder­ness to home­land.” This prac­tice of inter­act­ing inti­mate­ly with the nat­ur­al world is one that she con­tin­ued to cul­ti­vate and even­tu­al­ly brought with her to SUNY.

At the uni­ver­si­ty, Kimmerer’s unique way of look­ing at the nat­ur­al world was not com­plete­ly accept­ed by her pro­fes­sor, and she was often told that her inter­ests were “not sci­ence.” Although she soon adopt­ed sci­en­tif­ic ways of think­ing, she nev­er­the­less real­ized that only by teach­ing the “mechan­ics of botany” she “was teach­ing the names and ignor­ing the songs.” One thing Kim­mer­er has always com­mu­ni­cat­ed to her stu­dents is how humans can have a pos­i­tive impact on plants and the Earth as a whole. Tak­ing them out of the uni­ver­si­ty set­ting and into the field, Kim­mer­er teach­es the stu­dents field biol­o­gy tech­niques. She also teach­es them how to build shel­ter, respect­ful­ly har­vest plants, and give back to the land.

Kimmerer’s pas­sion and care for the world of plants goes hand in hand with her belief in the impor­tance of reci­procity between nature and the human world. In an inter­view with Pro­fes­sor Paul Pep­pis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon,) Kim­mer­er tells the cre­ation sto­ry of Sky­woman who fell through a hole in the sky world down into the water world below. As she fell, a flock of geese caught her and helped her land safe­ly. She con­sid­ers this first inter­ac­tion between human and ani­mal “one of care and pro­tec­tion.” Once in the water, tur­tle offered Sky­woman its back to rest on, and many oth­er ani­mals came to her aid in the task of cre­at­ing a piece of land. In the end, the muskrat dove down and got enough mud for Sky­woman who then placed it on the turtle’s back to cre­ate the first piece of land. To give thanks to all of the ani­mals and the gifts they gave her, Sky­woman danced, and her dance of grat­i­tude increased the piece of land beneath her feet until it was trans­formed into the Earth.

Kim­mer­er explains how this sto­ry reminds us that the earth was made “not only by the gifts and con­tri­bu­tions of all of the ani­mal beings that were here before us, but in com­bi­na­tion with human grat­i­tude.” It is this grat­i­tude that we must remem­ber and give back to the plants and ani­mals that sus­tain us. Kimmerer’s teach­ings of grat­i­tude and reci­procity come at a time when it’s impos­si­ble to ignore the harm­ful impact human activ­i­ty has on the plan­et. In this con­text, her words are both a warn­ing and a call to change.

From oil extrac­tion to indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, we seem to be more focused on what we can get from the plan­et than what we can give to it. We’ve moved away from the teach­ings of the hon­or­able har­vest and are now fac­ing a daunt­ing and scary future, one in which the health and bal­ance of the Earth is at stake. Even sus­tain­abil­i­ty is more often about “find­ing the for­mu­la so we can keep on tak­ing” than actu­al­ly treat­ing the earth with care. In oth­er words, we con­cen­trate on find­ing a solu­tion so we can con­tin­ue exploit­ing the earth for resources.

In her talk at the Bioneers Con­fer­ence, Kim­mer­er describes the cross­roads in regards to cli­mate change. One of the paths is green and invit­ing while the oth­er is burnt and destroyed. She explains that “in order to choose that green path, we first have to turn back along the path that our ances­tors left for us and pick up the teach­ings that they gave us.” It’s not the land “which is bro­ken, it’s our rela­tion­ship to the land.” As a sci­en­tist she believes in devel­op­ing meth­ods to restore ecosys­tems; she equal­ly believes in chang­ing the ways in which we inter­act with the land. The hon­or­able har­vest, reci­procity, and remem­ber­ing the teach­ings of our ances­tors are all impor­tant pieces of this puz­zle. These tools are the key to a bright future for our plan­et, a future in which humans and the nat­ur­al world live togeth­er in harmony.

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Orig­i­nal­ly from Cal­i­for­nia, Savi­ta Joshi lives in Berlin and is work­ing towards a Mas­ters in Dig­i­tal Jour­nal­ism at the Hochschule für Medi­en, Kom­mu­nika­tion und Wirtschaft (HMKW). It’s through her writ­ing that she com­bines her pas­sion for human rights, the envi­ron­ment, and repro­duc­tive jus­tice with her love of words.