November Author Spotlight: Robin Wall Kimmerer
Updated: Jun 2
Learn more about the mother, botanist, writer, and social activist behind Braiding Sweetgrass.
ID: To the left, a Native American woman with grey hair stands in the woods with her hands crossed in front of her, looking up to the right with a smile on her face. To the right, a book cover reading Braiding Sweetgrass features a braid of the sweetgrass plant resting across the cover of the book.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a force of re-indigenization– gentle and powerful, her words cannot be ignored. And neither can her work as a writer, professor, and research director– Kimmerer is ceaseless, and her accomplishments attest to her dedication to reshaping our relationship with the ecological world. She is reshaping Western environmental culture by re-introducing TEK, or traditional ecological knowledge, into academic and scientific settings. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings this re-introduction to a colloquial level, encouraging powerful shifts of perspective through Indigenous storytelling. Kimmerer uses the Potawatomi and Ojibwe languages in her stories, and as referenced in the book, the animacy which comes with these grammar systems is a key factor in understanding Indigenous kinship with the land.
Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a group native to the Western Great Lakes. She grew up in upstate New York, and in her childhood, she possessed a great wonder at her natural surroundings. Her parents' efforts to reconnect with their Potawatomi identities and her grandfather’s experiences at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School greatly influenced Kimmerer’s life path. Her grandfather’s forced loss of his native language at this school helped incite Kimmerer to learn the Potawatomi language herself, and apply it to her academic identity as a Professor of Botany. In her work at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, her alma mater, Kimmerer focuses on the ecology of mosses, disturbance ecology, and restoring and establishing ecological partnerships with Native American communities. She teaches multiple courses on Indigenous issues and the environment, field ethnobotany, and plants and culture.
Outside of her work as a professor, Kimmerer is involved in numerous stewardship programs centered on forest education and Indigenous scientific research. She is the Founding Director for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, a program which draws on practices outlined in Braiding Sweetgrass through community outreach. They increase educational opportunities for Indigenous students and partner with Native American communities to address local environmental issues. One of the Center’s goals is to engage with future Native scientists, ensuring TEK’s place in relation to Western ecology. Indigenous populations inhabit areas with some of the greatest remaining biodiversity, so involving TEK in is imperative not only to Indigenous groups, but sustainability efforts on the whole. According to a 1998 article of Kimmerer’s, “TEK has value not only for the wealth of biological information it contains, but for the cultural framework of respect, reciprocity and responsibility in which it is embedded.”
Kimmerer’s effect on the scientific world and the humanities is undeniable. Gathering Moss, her first book, is centered on the ecology of mosses, and Kimmerer takes a similar, multidisciplinary approach to this botanical read, combining personal essay with biological knowledge. She has written for numerous magazines such as Orion, Sun, and Yes!. Gathering Moss won the 2005 John Burroughs Medal Award for Natural History Writing, and she has been named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow. Beyond her academic and professional successes, Kimmerer often refers to herself first as a mother, and also a social activist.