Robin Wall Kimmerer Speaks On The Honorable Harvest, Reciprocity and Sustainable Futures

On April 1, 2024, renowned author and doctor of plant ecology Robin Wall Kimmerer came to Swarthmore to speak about Indigenous knowledge, ecology, and honorable harvest practices. Kimmerer, who is most well-known for her 2013 book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” spoke at length about her essential belief that true sustainability cannot be achieved without the deconstruction of widely-held beliefs of human exceptionalism. The event was sponsored by The William J. Cooper Foundation, the Environmental Studies Program, the Office of Sustainability, the Environmental Justice & Community Resilience Program, the Scott Arboretum, and Sigma Xi.

Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Program Coordinator for the Environmental Studies Program Chris Graves began the event by discussing the positive impact of “Braiding Sweetgrass” on his Introduction to Environmental Studies course, before reading aloud the college’s land acknowledgement. 

“We in the Environmental Studies program take this statement seriously and acknowledge that these words alone, without substantive action, are insufficient. In that vein, we view this land acknowledgment not as an empty set of words but as a call to action,” he said. “Our students are deeply committed to learning more about indigenous approaches to environmental studies and environmental justice.”

“In response, the college has committed to growing the number of Indigenous faculty and students on campus into building a program based on Native American and Indigenous Studies. These are small steps but important ones,” he added. 

After Graves finished speaking, Assistant Professor of Biology Itzue Caviedes Solis introduced Kimmerer to the crowd and reflected on Kimmerer’s personal impact on her. 

“I was deeply [impressed with] Robin’s emphasis on allegiance and gratitude as a profound point in her daily life, scientific fieldwork and culture,” Solis shared. “As a biologist who is deeply in love with frogs, I want to express my gratitude to Robin Wall Kimmerer for reminding us that doing science with awe and humility is an act of reciprocity, which makes us stronger scientists. She helps us to understand that science is not just about rigor. Science can be a way to form intimacy and respect for other species.” 

Kimmerer began the talk by giving respectful greetings to her relatives, emphasizing that she is a “Potawatomi woman of the Bear Clan and also of the Eagles” and that her name in the Potawatomi language is “light shining through”, and expressing her joy for the opportunity to come to the college. She then told the audience to “take a minute together, feet on the floor” to give gratitude to Mother Earth. 

“As we give gratitude to the Earth for everything that she gives us, can we at the same time commit to live in such a way that she will be grateful for our presence as well?” she asked. 

Kimmerer spoke of what her friend and colleague Neil Patterson Jr. calls the first sustainability policy on the planet, which came in the form of a beaded belt depicting one dish and one spoon. This treaty was agreed upon by two tribes who shared hunting land, and serves as a promise between them to preserve the area. As Kimmerer put it, “we are all set from the same dish. This is the dish that Mother Earth has built for us. And as two nations we agree that each one of us is responsible for keeping that bowl clean, and also keeping it full.” Kimmerer went on to quip, “Because this is the oldest sustainability policy on the planet, it’s on page one of your textbooks, isn’t it?” 

Indigenous customs such as these along with the languages that many native communities spoke were obliterated upon the arrival of European colonizers to North America, through systematic colonization efforts such as the founding of residential schools in the United States and Canada. 

Language itself is of utmost importance to Kimmerer, as she believes the ways in which humans treat the earth are often impacted by the ways they think and speak about it. In the language of the Potawatomi Nation, to which Kimmerer belongs, plants and animals are referred to as if they are family. This is a stark contrast to English, for example, in which plants and animals are called “it” rather than “they,” “he,” or “she.” 

While the difference between using the pronoun “it” and “they” to describe an animal might seem trivial, Kimmerer believes that in calling an organism “it,” we are permitting ourselves to treat that organism as subhuman. She suggests an alternative pronoun, “ki,” derived from the shortened Anishinaabe word for earthly being. She noted that all pronouns need plurals, and suggested a fitting one: “kin.” 

Kimmerer went on to recount her early experiences in academia. Talking with a professor of botany early in her job, she was asked why she was interested in the subject. She responded by saying that she had always wanted to know why aster and goldenrod look so beautiful when they grow together; her professor scolded her, saying that she should have gone to art school if she wanted to know about beauty. 

For many reasons, including this experience, Kimmerer posits that Indigenous and Western understandings of ecology are not mutually exclusive – that we should learn to look through both lenses. 

“It isn’t one or the other. It’s both of these sovereign knowledge working together in complementary fashion. One of the metaphors that we use to think about our work as researchers, as educators, we have been taught to see through one lens, the lens of Western society,” she said. “We’re asking what it would be like to wear glasses that allow us to see both of these ways. This idea of two eyes seeing is part of the philosophy of our work. I think in the spirit of intellectual pluralism and exploration, this should be the approach that we and universities must take.” 

“In fact, this is a false binary to say there is a Western lens and an Indigenous lens. Really, the glasses I want to wear are the multifaceted eyes of a fly, to be able to do all of those ways of knowing,” she added.

Kimmerer then underscored the importance of indigenous knowledge to maintaining biodiversity, referring to a United Nations report finding that 70% of the world’s songbirds are gone in the last 50 years, and discusses the “herpetological catastrophe.” She then showed a map displaying spots of biodiversity and of language diversity to demonstrate that places where “biodiversity is holding steady” tend to be in Indigenous homelands. 

“Shouldn’t we in a sustainability community be asking why? This is very powerful evidence,” she said. “Basically, what we know is that the application of indigenous land management, indigenous science, and traditional knowledge actually generates and maintains biodiversity.”

She elaborated further, emphasizing that despite this fact, biodiverse and indigenous lands are constantly threatened. 

“While 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in indigenous homelands, almost none of it is protected. It’s all under threat, from the same sources of colonization, industrialization and assimilation that play out here in the United States. So if we care about biodiversity, we have to care about cultural diversity,” she added.

Returning to the idea of dismantling notions of human exceptionalism, Kimmerer introduced the talk’s titular concept: the honorable harvest. She described the honorable harvest as being first and foremost a practice of self restraint. Explaining the concept via the example of berry picking, she said, “If you never take the first one, you’re never going to take the last one.” 

The tenants of the honorable harvest include asking permission of the plants and animals from which you are taking, and abiding by their responses; harvesting while minimizing harm; taking only what you need; using and sharing what you take; reciprocating the gift. While she acknowledges the impossibility of  listening to, for example, a strawberry plant’s response to you asking whether you can take their fruit, she suggests that their response to the question can be inferred by taking note of the plant’s health, amount of fruit, and more. She also suggested thanking the plant by spreading its seeds or weeding around it. 

Kimmerer then discussed an Anishinaabe story called “The People of the Seventh Fire,” in which the fires represent distinct historical eras of movement and life for the Anishinaabe peoples. Within the story, a time passes where the Anishinaabe language and children are taken, river water becomes undrinkable, and the air becomes too thick to breathe. 

“We know that has come to pass. And in the wisdom of these teachings, we are told there will come a time when all the world’s people, even newcomers to Turtle Island, as well as the original people, are going to stand at a fork in the road with a decision to make,” she said.

On one side of the path, there are ashes in the trees and hard ground that will cut the feet of those who walk it. On the other side is a lush green path. She emphasized that before the world’s people can head down the green path and heal, they must turn back and walk along the path of their ancestors. 

“And we are told that is the time of the Seventh Fire, when this will unfold,” she added. “We’re told that the people of the Seventh Fire are going to suffer. They’re going to need courage. They’re going to need a vision of the future – they’re going to need each other. Because none of us can pick up all of that.”

Kimmerer ended the talk portion of the event by answering the question “What does the Earth ask of us to give back in return for everything we have taken?”

“The Earth calls us to reciprocity — in our language, we say ‘aambe maj ta da.’ Come on, let’s get started.”

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