Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer

Plant ecologist, author, professor, and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry shares insight and inspiration.

By Amy Nelson

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Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “It’s not the land that is broken, bur our relationship to it.” As a mother, plant ecologist, author, member of the Citizen Band of the indigenous Potawatomi people, professor, and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Kimmerer works to restore that relationship every day.

She believes that ecological restoration, which can help restore this relationship, has much to gain from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). We were honored to talk with Dr. Kimmerer about TEK, and about how its thoughtful integration with Western science could empower ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design to restore truly a flourishing planet.

How has your identity as a Native American influenced you as a scientist? 

I am an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, but my ancestry, like that of many indigenous peoples, is mixed. My indigenous world view has greatly shaped my choices about what I do in science. One of the underlying principles of an indigenous philosophy is the notion that the world is a gift, and humans have a responsibility not only to care for that gift and not damage it, but to engage in reciprocity. Reciprocity is one of the most important principles in thinking about our relationship with the living world. Restoration is an important component of that reciprocity.

You contributed a chapter (Restoration and Reciprocity: The Contributions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge) to the book Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration (Island Press 2011) in which you wrote, “A guiding principle that emerges from numerous tribal restoration projects is that the well-being of the land is inextricably linked to the well-being of the community and the individual.”

You explain that the indigenous view of ecological restoration extends beyond the repair of ecosystem structure and function to include the restoration of cultural services and relationships to place. For indigenous people, you write, ecological restoration goals may include revitalization of traditional language, diet, subsistence-use activities, reinforcement of spiritual responsibility, development of place-based, sustainable economy, and focus on keystone species that are vital to culture. You cite restoration projects that have been guided by this expanded vision.  For the benefit of our readers, can you share a project that has been guided by the indigenous view of restoration and has achieved multiple goals related to restoration of land and culture?

One story I would share is one of the things my students (Reid 2005; Shebitz and Kimmerer 2005) have been working on: the restoration of Sweetgrass (Anthoxanthum niten), an important ceremonial and material plant for a lot of Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and other peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands  use it intensively. It had been brought to our attention by indigenous basket makers that that plant was declining. The basket makers became the source of long-term data concerning the population trajectories , showing its decline.

When we began doing the restoration work in a returning  Mohawk community, that community was about being a place for restoration of language and community. My student Daniela J. Shebitz has written about this very beautifully. It’s a Mohawk community that is dedicated to restoration of culture. The plants needed to be in place in order to support  this cultural teaching. When people go out to pick Sweetgrass together, there is language that is shared, there are picking songs and rituals that are shared. There is also the cultural reinforcement that comes when making the baskets.

By putting the Sweetgrass back into the land, and helping the native community have access once again to that plant, that strengthens the cultural teachings of language and basket making. This is an example of what I call “reciprocal restoration”; in restoring the land we are restoring ourselves.

One of the fascinating things we discovered in the study was the relationship between the harvesters and the Sweetgrass. We looked into how the Sweetgrass tolerated various levels of harvesting and we found that it flourished when it was harvested. The Western paradigm of “if you leave those plants alone, they’ll do the best” wasn’t the case at all. The indigenous paradigm of “if we use a plant respectfully, it will stay with us and flourish; if we ignore it or treat it disrespectfully, it will go away” was exactly what we found. Restoring the plant meant that you had to also restore the harvesters. The harvesters created the disturbance regime which enlivened the regeneration of the Sweetgrass. To me, that’s a powerful example from the plants, the people, and the symbiosis between them, of the synergy of restoring plants and culture.

Let’s talk a bit more about traditional resource management practices. You say in your writing that they provide insight into tools for restoration through manipulation of disturbance regimes. How widely appreciated are these practices among those in the fields of ecological restoration and conservation?

Certainly fire has achieved a great deal of attention in the last 20 years, including cultural burning. For a long time, there was an era of fire suppression. Both native burning and wildfires were suppressed, historically. As we know through the beautiful work of Frank Lake and Dennis Martinez, we know the importance of fire in generating  biodiversity and of course in controlling the incidence of wildfires through fuels reduction.

There is certainly an appreciation among plant ecologists of the role of natural disturbance regimes . What is less appreciated is the anthropogenic nature of many disturbance regimes–that it is a small-scale, skillfully-applied fire, at just the right season. Location and intensity, for particular purposes, helps create a network of biodiversity.

Most of the examples you provide in your chapter are projects initiated by Native Americans. While we have much to learn from these projects, to what extent are you seeing TEK being sought out by non-indigenous people? 

That’s a good question. It’s safe to say that the door has opened to an interest and increasing curiosity about indigenous land management regimes and how they might support conservation efforts. There are certainly practices on the ground such as fire management, harvest management, and tending practices that are well documented and very important. That material relationship with the land can certainly benefit conservation planning and practice. But more important is the indigenous world view of reciprocity and responsibility and active participation in the well-being of the land.

One of the things that is so often lost in discussions about conservation is that all flourishing is mutual. When people and their cultures are vibrant and have longevity, so does the land.  What’s good for the land is usually good for people.

Speaking of reciprocity…what about trust and reciprocity when it comes to the integration of TEK and Western science? Do scientists with this increasing curiosity about TEK regard it as a gift that must be reciprocated?

There are many schools of thought on the nature of sharing and integration of TEK. Because of the troubled history and the inherent power differential between scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) and TEK, there has to be great care in the way that knowledge is shared. It’s important to guard against cultural appropriation of knowledge, and to fully respect the knowledge sharing protocols held by the communities themselves.

It is very important that we not think of this integration among ways of knowing as “blending.” We know what happens when we put two very different things in a blender. We don’t have either one of them anymore. Its essential that relationships between knowledge systems maintain the integrity and sovereignty of that knowledge. An important goal is to maintain and increasingly co-generate knowledge about the land through a mutally beneficial symbiosis between TEK and SEK.

The metaphor that I use when thinking about how these two knowledge systems might work together is the indigenous metaphor about the Three Sisters garden. It’s a polyculture with three different species. When you grow corn, beans and squash together, you get more productivity, more nutrition, and more health for the land than by growing them alone. In indigenous ways of knowing, we think of plants as teachers. So what are those three sisters teaching us about integration between knowledge systems? When corn, beans and squash grow together, they don’t become each other. They maintain their strengths and identities. In fact, their identities are strengthened through their partnership. There’s complementarity. For me, the Three Sisters Garden offers a model for the imutualistic relationship between TEK and SEK. 

What role do you think education should play in facilitating this complimentarity in the integration of TEK & SEK?

First of all, TEK is virtually invisible to most Western scientists. They dismiss it as folklore, not really understanding that TEK is the intellectual equivalent to science, but in a holistic world view which takes into account more than just the intellect. In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that we don’t really understand a thing until we understand it with mind, body, emotion, and spirit. All of this comes into play in TEK.

So increasing the visibility of TEK is so important. I remember, as an undergraduate in a forest ecology class, when our professor was so excited to report that a scientist with the Forest Service had discovered that fire was good for the land. Now, I’m a member of the Potawatomi Nation, known as “people of the fire.” We say that fire was given to us to do good for the land. Fire has been part of our ancient practices, yet here science was claiming that they had discovered that fire was good for the land. There needs to be a great deal of education about the nature of TEK and its validity as a native science.

At the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment  we have been working on creating a curriculum that makes TEK visible to our students, who are resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental planners, scientists, and biologists.  Our goal is to bring the wisdom of TEK into conversations about our shared concerns for Mother Earth.

Where are you in the process of creating that curriculum, and are non-native students involved?

Most of our students are non-native. It is of great importance to train native environmental biologists and conservation biologists, but the fact of the matter is that currently, most conservation and environmental policy at the state and national scale is made by non-natives. It seems tremendously important that they understand these alternative world views in order to collaborate with tribes and indigenous nations, but also because these are just really good ideas.  There are alternatives to this dominant, reductionist, materialist world view that science is based upon .That scientific world view has tremendous power, but it runs up against issues that really relate to healing culture and relationships with nature.

Science is great at answering true-false questions, but science can’t tell us what we ought to do. Because TEK has a spiritual and moral responsibility component, it has the capacity to also offer guidance about our relationship to place.

Are you hoping that this curriculum can be integrated into schools other than SUNYESF?

That would be wonderful. Someday, I would like to see indigenous knowledge and environmental philosophy be part of every environmental curriculum, as an inspiration to imagine relationships with place that are based on respect, responsibility and reciprocity.

We are working right now to collaboratively create a forest ecology curriculum in partnership with the College of Menominee Nation, a tribal college.  We are going to create a shared forestry class, where TEK and an indigenous world view are major components in thinking about forest ecology, as well as the scientific perspective. So that’s a new initiative that we’re very excited about

We already have a number of courses in place at SUNY ESF. We have an Indigenous Issues and the Environment class, which is a foundational class in understanding the history of native relationships with place and introducing TEK, traditional resource management, and the indigenous world view. We are primarily training non-native scientists to understand this perspective.

The partnership with the College of Menominee Nation sure sounds like you are bringing that complementarity you mentioned to life. 


Can our readers learn more about that on the Center’s web site?

Not yet, but we are working on that! We’ll post more as the project develops.

You have written that TEK can “provide an alternative way of approaching the restoration process.” Can you elaborate?

One of the very important ways that TEK can be useful in the restoration process is in the identification of the reference ecosystems. Indigenous languages and place names, for example, can help inform this. If we translate a place name, and it  is called  “the bend in the river where we pick Juneberries,” then we know something about the reference ecosystem that we didn’t know before, not only biologically, but culturally as well Using indigenous language as keys to understanding reference ecosystems is something that is generally far outside the thinking of Western scientists, and it’s another beautiful example of reciprocal restoration. The language has to be in place in order for it to be useful in finding reference ecosystems. So the use of traditional place names, language, oral history, etc. can be very useful to the restoration process.

Another important element of the indigenous world view is in framing the research question itself. Here is an example. My neighbors in Upstate New York, the Onondaga Nation, have been important contributors to envisioning the restoration of Onondaga Lake. Onondaga Lake has been managed primarily in an SEK/engineering sort of approach, which involves extremely objective measures of what it means for the lake to be a healthy ecosystem…standards, such as “X number of parts per million of mercury in the water column.”

The Onondaga Nation has taken their traditional philosophy, which is embodied in an oral tradition known as Thanksgiving Address, and using that to arrive at different goals for the restoration of Onondaga Lake that are based on relationships. They say, “The relationship we want, once again, to have with the lake is that it can feed the people. If the people can drink the water, then our relatives, the cold water fish who were once in that lake, could return again.” None of that is written into federal, empirical standards. That’s why this notion of a holistic restoration of relationship to place is important. It raises the bar. The standards for restorationare higher when they encompass cultural uses and values.

You cite the example of the Karuk tribal forest restoration, where practitioners “were receptive to the potential contributions of unintended species, consistent with their world view of plants as carriers of knowledge.”  There have been many passionate debates in our field about “invasive species” vs. “novel ecosystems.” In general, how are species that are labeled “invasive” regarded by indigenous people?

There is, of course, no one answer to that. There is probably as great a diversity in that thinking among native peoples as among non-native people. However, one perspective which is often well represented in indigenous thinking, and less so in Western thinking, is this notion that the plants themselves, whom we regard as persons (as we regard all other species and elements of ecosystems) have their own intelligence, role, and way of being.

When we look at new or “invasive” species that come to us, instead of having a knee jerk reaction of “those are bad and we want to do everything we can to eliminate them,” we consider what are they brining us. Plants are our teachers, so what is it they’re trying to teach us? What is the presence of overabundance of Phragmites teaching us, for example? What do we need to learn about that? We need to learn about controlling nitrogen and phosphorous. Those plants are here because we have invited them here. We have created the conditions where they’re going to flourish.

There are also many examples of plants that have come into good balance with other native species, so much so that we refer to them as ‘naturalized species,’ just like naturalized citizens. People who have come from another place become naturalized citizens because they work for and contribute to the general good. There are exotic species that have been well integrated into the flora and have not been particularly destructive. So I think there is a general willingness to wait and see what we can learn from these species, rather than have a knee jerk reaction of eradication.

You say that TEK brings value to restoration in both the body of information that indigenous people have amassed through thousands of years spent living in a place, but also in their world view that includes respect, reciprocity and responsibility. What about the skill of indigenous people in communication, and storytelling. How can that improve science?

What a great question. In the indigenous world view, people are not put on the top of the biological pyramid. We often refer to ourselves as the “younger brothers of creation.” We are often consumers of the natural world, and we forget that we must also be givers. But what shall we give? We don’t have the gifts of photosynthesis, flight, or breathing underwater.. But we are storytellers. The ability to tell the stories of a living world is an important gift, because when we have that appreciation of all of the biodiversity around us, and when we view [other species] as our relatives bearing gifts, those are messages that can generate cultural transformation.

Gary Nabhan says that in order to do restoration, we need to do “re-storyation.” We need to tell a different story about our relationship between people and place. That is one of the most valuable contributions of indigenous people.

There is a tendency among some elements of Western culture to appropriate indigenous culture. They have this idea that TEK and indigenous ways of knowing are going to change everything and save the world. There’s certainly a lot of potential. But what is most important to me is not so much cultural “borrowing” from indigenous people, but using indigenous relationship to place to catalyze the development of authentic relationships between settler/immigrant society and place. Not to copy or borrow from indigenous people, but to be inspired to generate an authentic relationship to place, a feeling of being indigenous to place.

Speaking of storytelling, your recent book Gathering of Moss, was a pleasure to read. What are you working on now?

In the spring, I have a new book coming out called Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Press, 2013). The central metaphor of the Sweetgrass braid is that it is made up of three starnds:  traditional ecological knowledge, scientific knowledge, and personal experience of weaving them together. The whole theme of the book is, “If plants are our teachers, how do we become better students?” It’s all about restoring reciprocity, and it addresses the question, “In return for the gifts of the Earth, what will we give?”

Since you are in New York, I would be remiss if I did not ask you about fracking. Has the native community come together to fight fracking.

Yes! In fact, the Onondaga Nation held a rally and festival to gather support for resistance to fracking. The Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, which is a consortium of indigenous nations in New York State, has spoken out quite strongly against hydrofracking.

All parts of our world are connected. Water is sacred, and we have a responsibility to care for it. This notion of poisoning water in order to get gas out of the ground so we can have more things to throw away is antithetical to the notion of respect and reciprocity.

Do you think it is truly possible for mainstream Americans, regardless of their individual religions, to adopt an indigenous world view-one in which their fate is linked to, say, that of a plant or an insect?

I do, because that is probably the only right way in which we are going to survive together. We will have to return to the idea that all flourishing is mutual. Unless we regard the rest of the world with the same respect that we give each other as human people, I do not think we will flourish. It’s essential to recognize that all of our fates our linked.

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