Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

It's difficult to step outside your own worldview and see what parts of your thoughts or behaviors or relationships are universal to the human experience, and in what ways they are shaped by the general philosophy and economic system around you. I think Braiding Sweetgrass does a good job at introducing you to indigenous philosophy, and highlighting how the relationships between humans and the Earth differ in this worldview from the liberal capitalist worldview dominant in settler countries. 

An example of this that I found particularly poignant is that of the creation myth. In the story of Turtle Island, the first human, Skywoman, falls to earth and she is supported and kept alive by the animals of earth. In turn, she brings seeds to fill the earth with grasses and flowers and medicines, which nourish the animals. This creation myth is one of community and reciprocity. In contrast, in the Christian myth, humans are created with dominion over animals and plants, then exiled from Eden when they consume the fruit of knowledge. This creation myth is one of humans elevated in status and power over plants and animals, rootlessly separated from their homes, burdened by sin. The stories we tell shape our views of our responsibilities to the earth and to each other. Our philosophy, in turn, shapes our practice. 

However, Kimmerer speaks with a foot in each philosophy, seemingly not realizing the ways in which her view of her responsibility to the world is still shaped by that of Eve. For example, in Collateral Damage, she describes her helping of salamanders migrate across the road as an act of repentance of sin (emphasis mine):

I can't stop bombs from falling and I can't stop cars from speeding down this road. It is beyond my power. But I can pick up salamanders. For one night, I want to clear my name. What is it that draws us to this lonely hollow? Maybe it is love, the same thing that draws the salamanders from under their logs. Or maybe we walked this road tonight in search of absolution.

The idea of addressing the wounds humans have made and continue to inflict on the world is repeatedly described in individualistic terms, and the solutions proposed are limited to measures that fit within liberalism and capitalism. "[I]t can be too easy to shift the burden of responsibility to the coal company or the land developers. What about me, the one who buys what they sell, who is complicit in the dishonorable harvest?" Kimmerer asks. She further suggests that the solution to the horrors caused by the market economy can be solved using the instruments of the market economy: "We can use our dollars as the indirect currency of reciprocity." In "Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide", which discusses how legislative progress is hampered by people complaining about paying too many taxes, the sole solution proposed to address climate change is a carbon tax. She has a tendency to sneer at her students or neighbours who do not have a reciprocal or sacred relationship with the earth, without asking why (other than ignorance) they might not have adopted a better worldview. 

There is in the very last chapter, however, a hint of a bigger picture for how a healthier society could be organized, and I wish she had developed it in more detail:

What is the alternative? And how do we get there? I don't know for certain, but I believe the answer is contained within our teachings of "One Bowl and One Spoon", which holds that the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon. This is the vision of the economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. (...) These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous worldview in which the earth exists not as private property but as a commons, to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.
And yet, while creating an alternative to destruction economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policies that we need but also changes to the heart.

Braiding Sweetgrass particularly examines the relationship between the accumulation of knowledge, i.e., science, in indigenous cultures versus that of settler cultures. The recurring theme is one of western science rejecting the methods and findings of indigenous science until the data has been collected and presented according to western norms and shoved in the face of western scientists until the truths can no longer be denied. I think it's an important point to communicate: our ability to understand our world and develop technology is hindered by limited views of science, and by our prejudice. However, I would have liked to see a little more synthesis. Indigenous philosophies are presented as static, unchanging over the last few centuries despite seismic shifts in society and technology in that time frame. We have seen how settler science should have listened to indigenous science and revised itself given this information. How do indigenous philosophies change and update themselves in response to new scientific discoveries, or social changes? 

There's a lot of looking backwards in this book. What does indigenous science and indigenous philosophy see in the road ahead?

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