On March 9, Colgate University welcomed Robin Wall Kimmerer to Memorial Chapel for a talk on her bestselling book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Kimmerer — a mother, botanist, professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation — spoke on her many overlapping identities and the experiences that inspired her book.
Chosen by students, professors, and staff members as the 2021–22 community read, Braiding Sweetgrass was read by all incoming first-years and has served as the foundation for a variety of classroom interactions, co-curricular discussions, and events throughout the year.
A core message of Kimmerer’s talk was the power and importance of “two-eyed seeing,” or the ability to see the environment through multiple lenses such as that of an Indigenous person and a botanist. To illustrate this point, Kimmerer shared an image that one of her students at ESF had created, depicting a pair of glasses looking out upon a landscape.
Through one lens, the landscape was composed of different scientific processes like photosynthesis and classifications like aquatic herbivore. Through the other lens, the landscape came alive through the image of an Indigenous being, Sky Woman, balanced upon the wings of an enormous bird and clutching the seeds of the world in her hands.
Although, to many, these images would appear in contrast with one another, Kimmerer explains that they are both perceptions of the same landscape, and together they create a more complete understanding of the world.
“To see the world through dual-vision is to see a more complete version of the world,” said Kimmerer. “Only by bringing together the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge and philosophy and the tools of Western science, can we learn to better care for the land. Only through unity can we begin to heal.”
In the same way that she encouraged her audience to see the world in a new way, Kimmerer encouraged them to speak about the environment in a new way as well: to stop othering the natural world by referring to it as an “it” and instead honor its diversity as “ki” for singular and “kin” for plural. These new, more intimate terms, derived from the Anishinaabe word “aki” or “Earthly being,” do not separate the speaker from the Earth or diminish the value of the Earth.
“When you see the trees as your teachers, your relatives, your companions, your friends, and your ‘kin,’ you begin to see sustainability in a new way, as something personal and essential,” Kimmerer said. “We don’t need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction.”
Following Kimmerer’s talk, community members were given the opportunity to ask questions regarding her book and her opinions on current sustainability efforts — and seek advice on how to further heal our relationship with the land. Wrapping up the conversation, Kimmerer provided the audience with both a message of hope and a call to action. “We have the power to change how we think, how we speak, and how we perceive the living world so that we move toward justice,” said Kimmerer.
Colgate Director of Sustainability John Pumilio was integral to bringing Kimmerer to campus and hopes that the experience will help guide Colgate’s own sustainability efforts.
“Today, our broken relationship with the land is evidenced by a decrease in populations and biodiversity and an increase in pollution,” said Pumilio. “In my mind, Braiding Sweetgrass is a manifesto of sorts, offering guidance on how we can restore our relationship with the natural world.”