Braiding Sweetgrass and Bridging Cultures

This summer, as is usually the case, the list of books I had planned to read was too long to be practical. Two education-related books took priority for me this year, both recommended to me by Science educators I have had the privilege to work with these last three years. Both books examine the relationship between Science (the Science I learned and have taught in school) and Indigenous knowledge about nature. The books complimented one another really well, and I wanted to share my reflections.

First, I would like to acknowledge that I am at the start of a quest to better understand my role in the reconciliation process between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. I have to thank the authors of these books for the role they played in helping me better understand who I am. Understanding the Eurocentric nature of ‘my’ Science and Science education is, for me, an important first step in knowing where I fit in the reconciliation story. I find myself wondering if there are others in the same position I am, struggling to find out where they fit in this complex process.

The first book I read this summer was Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdon, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist by training. Her book, carefully-selected stories from her life and from Indigenous oral tradition, is full of hope and wonder. She writes about the importance of creating positive experiences with nature for students of all ages, emphasizing that a strong relationship with nature promotes respectful practices such as the ‘Honourable Harvest,’ which she summarizes with these words:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you (plants), so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have take.
Give thanks for what you have been give.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

Dr. Kimmerer distinguishes between Eurocentric Science (‘What is it? How does it work?’) and Indigenous ways of knowing nature (‘Who are you? What can you tell us?’). I was particularly intrigued by the inherent differences in western and Indigenous language; I grew up with (and teach) a Science that is full of impersonal nouns. The author recounts her journey in learning to speak her ancestral tongue, and her initial frustration upon realizing that there were far fewer nouns and far more verbs. She uses the example ‘wiikwegamaa,’ which translates as ‘to be a bay.’ Rather than relegate a bay to being a noun, the Ojibwe language imbues a bay with life:

” …the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage
and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the
living water was decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing
with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.”

As I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I yearned to be among Dr. Kimmerer’s students, covered in soil, carefully harvesting watap (roots of white spruce) to help them build a shelter in the forest. I found myself recalling professors of mine who made biology come alive for me, using imagery, humour, and storytelling to capture our intellectual and emotional interest. The picture Kimmerer paints of Nanabozho and Linnaeus going for a walk in the woods and discussing the names and relationships of plants and animals will stay with me always. The book ends with a message of hope that our earthly relationships (human-human, human-nature) can be restored to a healthier state with thoughtful, intentional action and cooperation.

A great interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, ‘Two Ways of Knowing,’ can be read here. She also has several lectures available to view online, including ‘Reclaiming the Honourable Harvest‘ and ‘The Teachings of Grass.’

The second book I read this summer was Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature by Glen Aikenhead and Herman Michell. It was the perfect contrast to Braiding Sweetgrass. Much more technical than poetic, this book provided a detailed analysis of Eurocentric Sciences and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature, taking great care to define the origins and qualities of each. The authors resist setting up a dichotomy, insisting that these two world views are complimentary to one another and share many fundamental qualities.

Bridging Cultures laid out explicitly what Braiding Sweetgrass taught me through stories and analogies. Eurocentric Science and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature are both rational, logical, systematic, communal, and dynamic. The differences between these two ways of knowing are relevant to how we interact with Indigenous and Neo-Indigenous students in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to understand that some aspects of Science may be difficult for these students because of some inherent differences in world view, which may include the following:

  • nature has an inherent spirituality
  • humans are not superior to other living things
  • learning about nature involves thinking, but also reflecting, living and being
  • relationships among living things create mutual responsibility
  • knowing nature cannot be separated from sustainability, generosity, wisdom, and collaboration
Aikenhead and Michell provide something that teachers are often looking for: advice on how to bring Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature into our classrooms to better support our Indigenous students. They recommend that teachers learn about the local community and, when possible, involve local elders in a respectful way when looking for ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in their teaching. General recommendations for supporting Indigenous students include many things that teachers recognize as good practice, including: a holistic approach, visual aides, oral communication, practical experience, time for reflection, and rich storytelling.
To read more about learning models for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, you can look at the ‘Holistic Lifelong Learning Models‘ created by the Canadian Council on Learning.
The things I learned while reading these two books stayed with me all summer as I spent time in nature alone and with my family. I noticed more sounds, smells, and plants when hiking in the woods. I considered the effects of a gravel road on an ecosystem during long runs on that road. I appreciated how much my senses and my understanding of angles helped me interpret the wind as I learned to sail. I listened for the differences in the sounds of the wind and rain interacting with different species of trees. I thanked – really thanked – trees for oxygen, plants and animals for food, trees for shade, and the sun for warmth. I shared every possible delight with my kids: the discovery of a luna moth caterpillar, the magical movements of a hummingbird, the glory of a starry night sky, the reflection of sunlight shimmering on the trees, the tiny perfection of an orange mushroom on a trail.
These books changed the way I think about myself as a Science teacher, and has helped me start a journey towards a wider world view. Many thanks to the authors, and to the teachers who recommended these books to me.

I can’t believe it has been over a year since I blogged. I didn’t know it had been that long – it’s funny how time flies. I’m hoping to visit this space more often as a place to share my journey and reflect on my teaching practice as I return to the classroom tomorrow. Tomorrow! Wow.

Best wishes to everyone starting school tomorrow!