Indigenous Knowledges and the Teachings of Plants
after Robin Wall Kimmerer
We give thanks to the sun for its light and its warmth, for its nourishing force to the Earth. We give thanks to the water which sustains all life, which freshens our eyes and responds to our thirst, water that makes home possible. We give thanks to our non-human teachers, thanks to the plants that pull themselves towards the light, thanks to the mushrooms that mysteriously grow, thanks to those whose ways sustain us all. We give thanks to animal others that fly above or crawl below. We give thanks as we learn and recognize them as family. (One deep breath) We give thanks to this air in our lungs. We have plenty.
[Image Description: Landscape drawing of a shining yellow sun over a sea, drawn in white and yellow lines. A seagull is flying over, sketched over a black background, and a green seedling is sprouting in front view.]
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a practitioner of gratitude, a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is also an author, and in her books, she brings us the teachings of plants and the ways of the mosses. She tells us stories from indigenous wisdom and intermingles them with western science to show us the many winding paths our knowledge can walk upon - and its many guides.
Gratitude is one of our guides, as she always begins with gratitude. Gratitude makes us strong, it makes us rich and joyful. Its presence does not lead to passivity or acceptance of injustice - to the contrary, gratitude shows respect for all that is given, it reorients us towards what is essential to life. As she writes, “allegiance to the water and the wind knows no boundaries”, allegiance cannot be bought and sold. No matter how much capitalism tries to quantify ecosystem services, to value how much oxygen the trees give, or how much carbon the forests store, it can never get it quite right. The trees and the forests do it just by being. There is no price tag you can put onto life. The question we should ask instead is, “How well do we do by them?”. And then, “what would it be like to be raised on gratitude?”
When we breathe in, when we give thanks, we realise we can have plenty of what we really need. Gratitude reminds us of what is essential.
“Gratitude for all the earth has given us lends us courage... to refuse to participate in an economy that destroys the beloved earth to line the pockets of the greedy, to demand an economy that is aligned with life, not stacked against it.”
[Image Description: Portrait of Robin Wall Kimmerer in front view, drawn in white lines over a black background. She is at the center of the picture, looking strong and determined. Her hair is flowing outwards into green leaves. Her long blue earrings touch her red flowy shirt.]
II. The teachings of plants
Plants are often seen as inferior life forms, incapable of movement, speech, thinking, or anything deemed worthy of consideration. In the eyes of many, they are not much more than objects, more akin to rocks than humans. But in indigenous teachings, plants, among others, are viewed as sovereign beings. The more-than-human world is composed of many people, and humans are only one small part of this democracy of species, in which the personhood of each is acknowledged.
Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to look at our oldest siblings on this Earth with wonder and to recognise the many ways in which plants are our teachers. Even though they don’t use language to communicate their messages, plants can always teach us something, so we might as well listen. After all, plants are the only creatures that know how to take light and water and air and transform them into nourishment, not only for themselves but for every other being on this planet.
So what lessons can we learn from them? Kimmerer writes that plants teach us generosity. By creating food, medicine, purifying the air, consolidating the land, providing shelter and even beauty, plants teach us the value of gifts.
But what are our responsibilities for all that has been given to us? For all the gifts we receive from the plant world, gratitude alone is not enough. There has to be a way of giving back, of protecting those who give us life. Thus, plants also teach us the lesson of reciprocity. “In a garden, food arises from partnership.” notices Kimmerer, pointing out how only through mutual care and commitment can a plentiful harvest be ensured.
“When berries spread out their giveaway blanket, offering their sweetness to birds and bears and boys alike, the transaction does not end there. Something beyond gratitude is asked of us. The berries trust that we will uphold our end of the bargain and disperse their seeds to new places to grow, which is good for berries and for boys. They remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect.”
We know too well how to take. Some of us humans, we take and we take, with little regard for the destruction that we’ve caused. What if, instead, we ask how to live ecologically, in a manner that reciprocates the gifts the Earth has given? We can learn to become givers, and the plants can teach us how.
[Image Description: A strawberry plant in focus, with red strawberries and flowers at the top and yellow roots beneath the earth, surrounded by earthworms and butterflies. Top left corner, a human hand approaching the plant, in white lines over a black background.]
III. Indigenous Knowledges and Western Science
A Long long time ago, so long, that it stretches time back upon itself and comes back to the present, there were Three Sisters who lived together on the land. The eldest stood tall and proud, with golden braids swooshing in the wind. The middle-sister wore orange dresses, dancing on the ground around the others. The youngest sister was slender and feisty, she could only stand up with the help of her eldest, but her feet were well planted in the ground. You might know their names as Corn, Squash and Beans, but together, they’re called The Sustainers.
They live best united, keeping one another safe: the corn provides structure and the beans crawl up against it. Downwards, the beans’ roots fix the nitrogen in the soil, while the leaves of the squash keep shade and moisture and ward off insects. It is ancient indigenous knowledge that they not only grow well together but mix beautifully on the table. Not only do they taste great, but they are healthy, too. A full meal: the corn turns sunshine into carbohydrates, beans provide protein and fibre, and squash gives vitamins C and beta-carotene.
Kimmerer writes that “Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies.”
Living this well means having the knowledge to do so, and indigenous knowledges have sustained peoples for countless generations. Yet, when Kimmerer went to university, the professors dismissed her curiosities: asking plants who they are and what they can tell us was not considered scientific. The botany she was taught was mechanistic, and questions about beauty or reciprocity did not fit that model. Western science meant humans would discover the world and use it for their benefit, no questions asked. But for Kimmerer, “Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating the knowledge of other beings.”
One might think there is hardly a way forward from the two distinct world-views, but Kimmerer proposes we learn from the Three Sisters instead. Like them, these knowledges are different, yet they might stand better together. It is known that polycultures are more resistant than monocultures – might it be so with knowledge, as well? The idea of this knowledge garden is that all can be fed.
The eldest one is the first to be planted, the structure of our knowledge mutualism. First, we honour indigenous knowledge, on which others can grow. The youngest, the beans, stand for scientific knowledge - they are powerful, curious, and enrich symbiosis. The middle one, our dear squash, can create the climate for multiple species to grow – this is our educational space, sustaining the meeting of knowledges. And let us not forget the fourth sister, the gardener. That is us.
We must tend these knowledges so they mingle, so they retain what is individual to them to the best of the community, so they, too, can give their precious gift, and we, in reciprocity, can answer. With humility, we must “know we can learn from intelligences other than our own”. With determination, we must respect what is given, protect our environments and vulnerable cultures. With joy, we must understand, we, too, are here to give back our cherished gift, whichever that is.
[Image Description: The three sister plants drawn in yellow, orange and green lines over a black background. Corn is surrounded by beans, and beneath there’s the squash with her long leaves. In the lower right corner, a white basket full of corn, beans and squash.]
IV. The honourable harvest
In Indigenous philosophies, relationships between humans and the more-than-human world are guided by stories of kinship, of proper reciprocity. One such set of principles is known as the Honorable Harvest. The teachings of the Honorable Harvest are simple: first, never take the first plant you see, it might be the last. Second, always ask permission, for the gifts we receive are not our possessions, but are given to us. If you ask, you must then listen for the answer. Is there enough for us to take? Is the population large enough and healthy to be shared with us? If the answer is no, we must refrain. We then ought to take only what we need and nothing more, for we must remember that we are not the only ones who live off the land. We share it with many others, human and non-human. Of course, taking only what we need can be tricky, especially when the lines between needs and wants are blurry and working in our favour. At this point, we can practice listening to non-human others, to their desires, to their resistance, and then respect their decisions, undoing our anthropocentrism. Ultimately, an even greater credence in the Honorable Harvest is to take only what is given to you. Honouring what was given means taking it in a way that does the least amount of harm, and not being wasteful. Lastly, we must remember that an honourable harvest is one that brings mutual benefit to all. For the gifts we receive, we must give back. We give back thanks to our plant siblings, but also our care: we spread their seeds, we water them and keep the soil healthy.
“Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer asks us to imagine how our world would look if the Honorable Harvest was our guiding principle. How would it be if we asked permission to the forests and the geese and the deer before building a highway?
Our many systems of law are very different from the Honorable Harvest. But they don’t have to be. In fact, honouring Indigenous knowledges means also honouring Indigenous laws, treaties and sovereignty. Countries ruled by settler systems of law should make space for Indigenous legal orders, in an effort of decolonization. But all of us, globally, could learn from the teachings of the plants and from traditional ecological knowledge. In our reckoning with colonial relations, with the anthropocentric destruction of the Earth and ongoing climate disasters, we can take a step back, put our feet firmly into the soil and let it tell us: ways of mutual caring are already here, we must only listen.
[Image Description: A berry plant feeding many: her red berries are taken by a human hand who spreads her further, by a tiny orange mouse and by a white bird. Pieces of sweetgrass, braided, are drawn in yellow lines around the plant.]
“What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that ceremonies should be reciprocal co-creations. The community creates ceremony, and ceremony creates communities. They should not be cultural appropriations from Native peoples, nor should they be there for the benefit of the market, for buying and selling. They should foster, instead, an active relationship with the more-than-human beings. They should be a way to recognise the knowledges of the nonhumans, each with their own gift. They should offer a way to honour the land and to deepen our relations.
We end with a ceremony so as to be able to go forth.
We take a deep breath, fill our lungs with air, a gift to all of the breathing living beings.
Our chests, rising and falling, tell us how connected we are.
They tell us we can find the proper ceremony to honour this Earth and all of her inhabitants. And we will.
[Image Description: An orange fire in the middle of the black background. Surrounded by stones and with wood holding it up, the fire warms up the illustration.]
Deckha, M. (2020). Unsettling Anthropocentric Legal Systems: Reconciliation, Indigenous Laws, and Animal Personhood. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 22. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2019.1704229
Kimmerer, R. W. (2003). Gathering moss: A natural and cultural history of mosses. Oregon State University Press.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2015). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions.
Robinson, M. (2013). Veganism and Mi’kmaq legends. The Canadian journal of native studies. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256293971_Veganism_and_Mi'kmaq_legends
Robinson, M. (2014). Animal Personhood in Mi’kmaq Perspective. Societies, 4(4), 672–688. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc4040672
Womack, C. (2013). There Is No Respectful Way to Kill an Animal. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 25(4), 11. https://doi.org/10.5250/studamerindilite.25.4.0011
https://youtu.be/ZpLBGK9sYEQ - Robin Wall Kimmerer talk at the Confluence Project
https://youtu.be/oDQ5WDLQb9M - What Plants Can Teach Us - A Talk with Robin Wall Kimmerer - New York Botanical Garden
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wisxnOgOlFo - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Reciprocity
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz1vgfZ3etE - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest: Robin Kimmerer at TEDxSitka
https://youtu.be/Cnpn2pf_slA - Blackstone Drum Contest Champions
Written by M. Martelli & Hestia Delibas
Writing suggestions by Aron Nor
Recorded by M. Martelli & Hestia Delibas
Illustrations made by Mina Mimosa
Directed & Edited by Aron Nor