Braiding Sweetgrass Discussion Section 1 Planting Sweetgrass

Welcome to the first discussion of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. This is the discussion of the Preface and Planting Sweetgrass section, up to page 59.
I’ve written little summaries of the individual sections, and then I’ll ask some questions. Feel free to answer in the comments section.

This is the introduction of the plant sweetgrass and the context of the plant in Wall Kimmerer’s Potawatomi culture.
I love Wall Kimmerer’s gentle explanation of the proper use and non-ownership of sweetgrass. The idea of not selling sweetgrass, but only giving it and letting it propagate itself, is an idea that some of us have a hard time wrapping our heads around. I felt guilty when I read this chapter because I’d purchased a sweetgrass braid a few years ago because it smelled so beautiful. It never entered my head that sweetgrass isn’t an object that could belong to humans to be bought and sold.
The other intriguing idea in this preface is the idea that braiding sweetgrass together with another person has value because it’s a shared activity. It made me think about how ordinary activities during the day can be more valuable when they’re done with another person.
Question: Do you think about any parts of your right-now life as being about braiding things together with another person?
The Skywoman story utterly charmed me, and made me think about the fact that there’s a difference between a creation story of the world and a creation story of humans in an already existing world. I also found the contrast of the Skywoman story, in which she was just pregnant as a way to populate the earth, with the Biblical creation story, in which childbirth was punishment for woman’s stupidity, striking. Which culture will have more respect for women, for mothers, for sex, for pregnancy and birth, for children?
This seemed to be mirrored in the fact that none of Wall Kimmerer’s students could think of positive examples of contact between humans and nature. She spends the rest of the book talking about these positive contacts, as framed by her Potawatomi culture.
Questions: Are you, if you are a woman, competent or dangerously stupid? Is motherhood a part of life or a punishment?
The Council of Pecans
This chapter really weaves together the horrible sadness and terror of the Potawatomi being forced onto land that they didn’t know and their being forced to make due, and the stealing of children into government schools, and the story of the miraculous way pecan trees produce fruit.
I had never heard of mast years, but this concept that there are years in which all the trees of one type produce fruit and other years in which they don’t is utterly fascinating. In theory, humans should be able to figure out exactly what the conditions are that trigger a mast year so we can predict a good harvest, but this isn’t the focus of the chapter at all. Instead, Wall Kimmerer focuses on the ways the trees communicate with each other and know when to produce and when not to produce.
This chapter also made me think about the lack of autonomy Potowatomi parents must have felt when they were forced to turn their children over to the abusive residential schools, knowing this might be their children’s only chance at physical survival at the expense of their emotional health and connection to their culture and families. I wonder about the system we live in now that asks parents to force kids to conform to the demands and rewards of the system instead of exploring their own skills and desires and how they fit into their families and communities.
Question: Do you feel you and your kids are in sync, like the pecan trees? What do you think guides the connection or lack of connection between you and your kids?
The Gift of Strawberries
Wow, this chapter and the idea of the gift economy just knocked me out. Strawberries that belong to themselves and aren’t commodities to be bought and sold are such a sweet idea, and it crystallized some ideas I have about my own yard and which “weeds” I let flourish and which ones I battle. (I’ve had this idea that some of the weeds in my yard have bad intentions, somehow, and I need to protect the weeds with good intentions from them.) What if we honored the plants around us as belonging to themselves instead of being mere commodities for our use?
Question: Is there something in your life right now that you’ve been treating as a commodity but that actually is a gift? Are you at this specific point in your life feeling more like a commodity or a gift?
An Offering
I loved the way this chapter explored coffee, which is essential to some of us but not native to where a lot of us live, as something that could be a gift to the earth and to the morning. And Wall Kimmerer’s father created a ritual and offering for his family that was just for them, not borrowed from anyone else, that bonded them and made them feel part of the earth. Offering and reverence and family at the same time.
Question: Do you give any kind of offering regularly? Have you taught your kids about that offering?
Asters and Goldenrod
This chapter explores the ways that traditional white schooling forced Wall Kimmerer to make her questions and life’s work smaller, because it didn’t have the ability to understand the things she was thinking about.
Question: Are there ways in which you aren’t being supported in exploring questions about yourself as a parent and about your kids, because there isn’t any way for dominant white culture to categorize the thoughts you’re thinking? How have you dealt with that?
Learning the Grammar of Animacy
This chapter, about the struggles to learn not just the language but the thought pattern of another language, walked such a beautiful line of acknowledging the difficulties of going from English to Potowatomi and back, without denigrating either language. Even though Wall Kimmerer fully acknowledges the violent way her language was stolen from her ancestors when they were taken from their families, she still loves and reveres English as a language. Her quest to express animacy almost creates animacy in English, ironically.
Question: Is there another language you are struggling to learn? Is there something you could say you “speak at home”?
This whole section made me think about how I had to start the process of knowing myself and my history before I could begin to know my children or help them understand their history. This continues to be a process, and it was reassuring to see Wall Kimmerer continue to process it as she wrote about processing it!
What did you take out of this first section?

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