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Braiding and reconciling ways of knowing with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer


Annie Webb


Sep 29, 2020


Sep 29, 2020


Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples requires an open and honest conversation to understand our diverse histories and experiences. Only through this process of reconciliation will we be able to address the urgent environmental challenges we face today, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and public health and wellness. Indigenous ways of knowing must be meaningfully integrated into stewardship policy and decision-making processes so that our lands, waters and resources to provide for us now and for generations to come.

The Reconciling Ways of Knowing (RWOK): Indigenous Knowledge and Science Forum was created to strengthen the relationships between the paradigms of Western scientific and Indigenous traditional knowledge, which is key to a more sustainable relationship to the planet and each other. RWOK is organizing as series of online talks to facilitate the process of reconciliation across Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing.

The most recent episode of the RWOK forum, “Braiding Ways of Knowing”, featured special guest Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Indigenous scholar, award-winning writer and recipient of the order of Canada, as well as Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The episode also included a discussion with Dr. David Suzuki, Dr. Nancy Turner, Miles Richardson and Elder Dave Chourchene Jr.

Dr. Kimmerer discussed how Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing can be braided together in her work on the role of traditional ecological knowledge in ecological restoration. As her ancestors of the Potawatomi Nation lost their traditional lands and ancestral knowledge, she grew up with little cultural knowledge of her peoples. But she soon developed a passion for working with plants, which has reunited her with her cultural traditions. She is optimistic that much of the lost traditional knowledge can be rebuilt over a single generation and help guide the path forward to reconciliation.

Braided sweetgrass. Photo by Jamfam1000, Wikimedia Commons

Braided sweetgrass. Photo by Jamfam1000, Wikimedia Commons

Her award-winning book “Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants” is about the world of botany as seen through Indigenous traditions. She explained that braiding ways of knowing is like a braid of sweetgrass, which is considered a sacred plant in many Indigenous cultures. The first strand of the braid represents Western knowledge and the second, Traditional knowledge. The third strand unites the first two and represents the knowledge of the plants themselves, as the plants already “know” what we may learn about them through our ways of knowing.

Sweetgrass. Photo by Kodemizer, Wikipedia

Sweetgrass. Photo by Kodemizer, Wikipedia

Sweetgrass has been diminishing throughout its natural range, and it was once thought to be due to human disturbances and habitat fragmentation. Kimmerer discussed traditional knowledge and harvesting of sweetgrass with Mohawk basket weavers and designed an experiment to determine the cause of the declines. The experiment showed that the sweetgrass flourished when harvested using traditional practices, while it diminished in the control plots with no harvesting. As First Nations Peoples have been co-existing and harvesting sweetgrass for millennia, there has been a symbiosis and co-evolution between people and these plants.

There is both a Western and traditional explanation to these findings, both of which lead us to an understanding of what plants “know” already. Kimmerer concludes, “If we care for the plants they will flourish. If we ignore them, they will go away. This is reconciling ways of knowing in practice.”

Stay tuned for Episode 4 of the RWOK Forum in October (title: TBC), proudly sponsored by the Canadian Mountain Network.

Missed the 2nd episode? You can watch “Enacting Ethical Space in Knowledge Sharing

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