Oklahoma is where Sam Riding In, a UO graduate student in public administration, grew up. His community would grow sunflowers like fences, 10–12 feet tall, surrounding the corn, beans and squash. The Pawnee term for “sunflower” reflected their role: “kirikhtaakataru” means “little yellow eye.” The eyes watched over the earth.
Riding In read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer about five years ago. In the section “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Kimmerer writes, “English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy.” In English, nature is a collection of objects, inanimate nouns, but Kimmerer encourages us to see nature as a communion of living beings to be treated with respect like family.
“That’s just one example that really resonated with me,” Riding In said, “because I was able to apply what she’s talking about directly to something that I was working with and experiencing every day.”
“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” is a 2013 nonfiction book by Kimmerer, which draws on her knowledge as a professor of ecology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The book includes stories from Native oral tradition and anecdotes from Kimmerer’s own life viewed through an Indigenous lens and through Western scientific thought. Distinct strands of knowledge are intricately intertwined, as Kimmerer promises, beautiful and taut like a braid of sweetgrass. It’s this deft weaving of knowledge and narrative that makes the book such a compelling and meaningful read.
The first line alone introduces the book’s theme and demonstrates Kimmerer’s prowess in craft, in sound and rhythm. It goes like this: “Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.”
Kimmerer writes prose like poetry, dense and musical. Note the consonance — “h” in “hold out your hands”; “l” in “let me lay”; the fricatives “s” and “sh” and the consonant pair “t” and “d” in “a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass.” The words are partnered, in harmony. Not only do the sounds of the language delight the tongue and the ear; this sentence introduces us to the extended metaphor that structures the whole book — sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is not some lifeless thing to be used or discarded. It is fresh, “loose and flowing” and compared to the beauty of human hair. Kimmerer reminds us that nature is alive. And the sweetgrass is a gift to us. Kimmerer uses the second-person to directly address the reader, to invite us into her world, and highlight the importance of relationships, community and care.
“In a lot of our communities, our stories are the way that we learn our lessons and we learn our knowledge,” said Estrella Soto, a third-year Native studies major who is Apache and Yaqui. “So it’s not going to be straightforward.”
“Braiding Sweetgrass” is the focus of the UO Common Reading program for the 2022–2023 school year, its second year as the program’s selection.
Each year, the program’s selection committee will seek nominations for books or other media on a theme, then establish criteria to narrow down the list of as many as 200 possibilities. It’s a lengthy process, according to program director Julie Voelker-Morris. For “Braiding Sweetgrass,” the theme concerned climate change and climate justice.
The decision to stick with “Braiding Sweetgrass” for a second year was in part because the school wasn’t able to give the book as much attention as it deserved, Voelker-Morris said, since the Common Reading program held an event that fall for the prior year’s book “Becoming” with former first lady Michelle Obama on Nov. 9, 2021. There was also interest from people around campus to continue working with the book.
“We looked at other possible books,” Voelker-Morris said. “We were thinking about other ways of looking at themes. And repeatedly people on the committee, students elsewhere within the university, other staff kept saying, ‘Can we just keep working with this? Can we do this again?’”
In addition to selecting a book, the Common Reading program organizes events and partners with other organizations to engage the community with the selection. Events connected to “Braiding Sweetgrass” have included a collaboration with the UO Craft Center, which offered students free botanical ink craft kits on Jan. 21. Many of the supplies for the kits were donated by Ashlee Weitlauf, collections conservator for UO Libraries, who makes lake pigments from plants in her spare time.
Bronwen Maxson, a UO librarian and member of the Common Reading programming committee, wrote a guide that accompanied the craft kit. Maxson related the activity to Kimmerer’s discussion of “The Honorable Harvest,” wherein Kimmerer critiques the lack of animacy in mass consumerism.
“I think it’s important to give students access to things outside of the classroom,” said Maxson, “things that put them in touch with the natural world, things that put them in touch with other ways of being in the world.”
Maxson invested 10 months of work with UO Libraries faculty Mandi Garcia and Amy Lake for the “Unceded Kinship” exhibit, curated by artist and UO alum Amber Starks. The exhibit displayed artworks and poetry about Indigenous and Afro-descendant identity in the Knight Library from May through September. Starks sought to uplift Black and Native people and to celebrate their contributions to the university and the state of Oregon, she said.
“It was about us expressing ourselves and telling our stories through art,” Starks wrote in an email. “It was about centering our lives, our experience, our hopes, our joy. It was about asserting our existence and refusing to ask permission to thrive. Ultimately, it was a reminder that we have always resisted our oppression and will always be the authors and architects of our sovereignty and liberation, respectively.”
The contributors were Ramon Shiloh, Demian DinéYazhi’, Intisar Abioto, Erica Blackwater, Jada McCovey, Jalynne Geddes, John Adair, Joseph Matthew Whittle, La Toya A. Hampton, Leyi Shea, Mira Fannin, Miranda Guppy and Steph Littlebird.
All the work behind the scenes was worth it for Maxson. While the exhibit was on display, a student employee at the front desk of the library emailed Maxson and Garcia and mentioned that the exhibit was important to them because of their Indigenous identity and they were “grateful that it was there,” Maxson said.
Voelker-Morris has also seen students embrace Indigenous knowledge and “Braiding Sweetgrass,” even over the summer. The Common Reading program tabled at sessions for IntroDUCKtion, UO’s freshman orientation program. The Common Reading program had yet to give out any copies of the book, since it was waiting for the publisher to deliver them, but some students already had the book in their backpacks.
“Students said, ‘We love this book. We are so excited the university is working with it,’” Voelker-Morris said. “They were already carrying it around and finding it valuable.”
To Soto, “Braiding Sweetgrass” is valuable for Native and non-Native readers alike. It can validate what people might already be thinking but haven’t been able to find the words for.
“It gives you a lot to think about,” Soto said. “Especially if you don’t come from the point of view that she’s coming from, if you don’t look through the world with an Indigenous lens, or didn’t grow up in your community with your culture, I think it’s accessible for anybody to read to start to think about these things.”
UO students can acquire a free copy of “Braiding Sweetgrass” in 107 Oregon Hall or by emailing the Common Reading program. An e-book of “Braiding Sweetgrass” is accessible through the UO Libraries website for free, as is the supplementary research guide.
Upcoming events include a free Mushroom Identification Clinic on Nov. 18 and the free talk “BE Indigenous Joy” by Lakota Native comedian Jana Schmieding on Nov. 22. Students can virtually attend events of other universities in partnership with UO: Kimmerer will speak at the “Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit” hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder on Dec. 1–4, and she will give a lecture at Washington State University on Jan. 31, 2023.