Robin Wall Kimmerer, an acclaimed author and scientist, gave a lecture and book discussion during a recent visit to Patagonia. Around 100 people attended her presentation at Cady Hall.

Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, asked the audience “What is our response to our earth’s gift?” She worked through this question through a 90-minute display of how to weave the three strands of knowledge into a wingash, or “braiding sweetgrass.” 

The first strand is plant knowledge, the second is scientific knowledge and the third is traditional or indigenous knowledge. When Kimmerer started her journey as a botany student in university she did not have a language of resistance to the western model of approaching plants. It was clear that her way of thinking of plants was not welcome in the scientific world. She said her grandfather was also told his way of thinking was not welcome at the reservation school. 

Now decades later, Kimmerer is the head of the Center for Native Peoples and Environment at the State University New York Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), the same university which had initially rejected her way of thinking. 

The indigenous paradigm sees nature as a subject, whereas the western paradigm sees nature as an object. Instead of seeing the earth as an object that contains natural resources for humans to take, the indigenous paradigm asks, “What can we give?” Kimmerer says that we can give the earth care, gratitude and reciprocity. She said, “gratitude connects you to all that is, it fills you, and so you consume less.” 

She also defined the differences between the indigenous and scientific view towards land. In the western view, land is seen as “natural resources, capital, property, and ecosystem services.” In the indigenous view land is “identity, sustainer, residence, home of ancestors, source of knowledge, healer, inspirited, and that there is a responsibility towards the land.”

Kimmerer talked about restoration, detailing the evolution of the philosophy of restoration. First there was scientific ecological knowledge, which considered restoration complete when things looked as they did before the damage. Usually, however, the land would then return to a state of desolation, according to Kimmerer. 

In the 1990’s there was a push to ecological restoration, to restore the land so that it would continue to thrive. Now it is the “bio-cultural restoration”, which brings together the older two models and incorporates the cultural knowledge of the indigenous or traditional people to create lasting and enduring change. She said, “It is not only the land which is broken, but our relationship to the land is broken.”

Kimmerer told indigenous stories that taught about how to see the earth, our relationship to it, and how to move forward. She said people must pay attention to earth, to nature and learn from it. Plants can teach people if they pay attention. Kimmerer talked about how in the indigenous view, respect was realizing that there is only “one bowl and one spoon.” 

Kimmerer outlined the teachings of her ancestors on an “honorable harvest.” These included, “never take the first one,” “ask before harvesting” and “listen for the answer.” She said, “Take only what you need, use everything you take and share what you’ve taken.” 

Kimmerer ended with instructions on how to support the United Nations (UN) pass a declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. She gave examples of how people around the world have been able to fight and gain legal ‘personhood’ status for nature. She said, “if corporations can be considered persons then why can’t a river?”