· Beyond Fear of Differences, Earth Initiative, Essays · , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By Robin Wall Kimmerer

summer day on the banks of the Mohawk River:

Én:skat tékeni, áhsen. Bend and pull, bend and pull. Kaié:ri, wisk, iá:ia’k, tsiá:ta, she calls to her granddaughter, standing waist deep in the grass. Her bundle grows thicker with every stoop of her back. She straightens up, rubs the small of her back, and tilts her head up to the blue summer sky, her black braid swinging in the arch of her back. Bank swallows twitter over the river. The breeze off the water sets the grasses waving and carries the fragrance of sweetgrass that rises from her footsteps.

A spring morning four hundred years later:

Én:ska, tékeni, áhsen. One, two, three; bend and dig, bend and dig. My bundle grows smaller with every stoop of my back. I drive my trowel into the soft ground and rock it back and forth. It scrapes against a buried stone and I dig my fingers in to unearth it, cast the stone aside to make an apple-sized hole big enough for the roots. From the tangled bundle wrapped in burlap, my fingers separate out a single clump of sweetgrass. I set it in the hole, scoop soil around it, speak words of welcome, and tamp it down. I straighten up and rub the small of my aching back. The sunshine pours down around us, warming the grass and releasing its scent. Red stake flags flutter in the breeze, marking the outlines of our plots.

Kaié:ri, wisk, iá:ia’k, tsiá:ta. From time beyond memory, Mohawk people inhabited this river valley that now bears their name. Back then the river was full of fish and its spring floods brought silt to fertilize their cornfields. Sweetgrass, called wenserakon ohonte in Mohawk, flourished on the banks. That language has not been heard here for centuries. Replaced by waves of immigrants, the Mohawk people were pushed from this generous valley in upstate New York to the very margins of the country. The once dominant culture of the great Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy was reduced to a patchwork of small reservations. The language that first gave voice to ideas like democracy, women’s equality, and the Great Law of Peace became an endangered species.

Mohawk language and culture didn’t disappear on their own. Forced assimilation, the government policy to deal with the so-called Indian problem, shipped Mohawk children to the barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the school’s avowed mission was “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” Braids were cut off and Native languages forbidden. Girls were trained to cook and clean and wear white gloves on Sunday. The scent of sweetgrass was replaced by the soap smells of the barracks laundry. Boys learned sports and skills useful to a settled village life: carpentry, farming, and how to handle money in their pockets. The governments goal of breaking the link between land, language, and Native people was nearly a success. But the Mohawk call themselves the Kanienkeha—People of the Flint—and flint does not melt easily into the great American melting pot.

Despite Carlisle, despite exile, despite a siege four hundred years long, there is something, some heart of living stone, that will not surrender. I don’t know just what sustained the people, but I believe it was carried in words. Pockets of the language survived among those who stayed rooted to place. Among those remaining, the Thanksgiving Address was spoken to greet the day: ‘‘Let us put our minds together as one and send greetings and thanks to our Mother Earth, who sustains our lives with her many gifts.” Grateful reciprocity with the world, as solid as a stone, sustained them when all else was stripped away.

The marvel of a basket is in its transformation, its journey from wholeness as a living plant to fragmented strands and back to wholeness again as a basket. A basket knows the dual powers of destruction and creation that shape the world. Strands once separated are rewoven into a new whole. The journey of a basket is also the journey of a people.

Photo by Bart Everson

Photo by Bart Everson

With their roots in riverside wetlands, both black ash and sweet-grass arc neighbors on the land. They arc reunited as neighbors in the Mohawk baskets. Braids of sweetgrass are woven among the splints of ash. Theresa remembers many childhood hours spent making braids from individual leaves of sweetgrass, twining them tight and even to reveal their glossy shine. Also woven into the baskets arc the laughter and the stories of the gathered women, where English and Mohawk blend together in the same sentence. Sweetgrass coils around the basket rim and threads the lids, so that even an empty basket contains the smell of the land, weaving the link between people and place, language and identity. Basket making also brings economic security. A woman who knows how to weave will not go hungry. Making sweetgrass baskets has become almost synonymous with being Mohawk.

Traditional Mohawks speak the words of thanksgiving to the land, but these days the lands along the St. Lawrence River have little to be grateful for. When parts of the reserve were flooded by power dams, heavy industry moved in to take advantage of the cheap electricity and easy shipping routes. Alcoa, General Motors, and Domtar don’t view the world through the prism of the Thanksgiving Address, and Akwesasne became one of the most contaminated communities in the country. The families of fishermen can no longer eat what they catch. Mother’s milk at Akwesasne carries a heavy burden of PCBs and dioxin. Industrial pollution made following traditional lifeways unsafe, threatening the bond between people and the land. Industrial toxins were poised to finish what was started at Carlisle.

Sakokwenionkwas, also known as Tom Porter, is a member of the Bear Clan. The Bear is known for protecting the people and as the keeper of medicine knowledge. Just so, twenty years ago, Tom and a handful of others set out with healing in mind. As a boy, he had heard his grandmother repeat the old prophecy that someday a small band of Mohawks would return to inhabit their old home along the Mohawk River. In 1993, that someday arrived when Tom and friends left Akwesasne for ancestral lands in the Mohawk Valley. Their vision was to create a new community on old lands, far from PCBs and power dams.

They settled on four hundred acres of woods and farms at Kanatsiohareke. It’s a place name from the time when this valley was dense with longhouses. In researching the land’s history, they found that Kanatsiohareke was the site of an ancient Bear Clan village. Today the old memories are weaving among new stories. A barn and houses nestle at the foot of a bluff in a bend of the river. Silty floodplain loams run right down to the banks. The hills, once laid waste by lumbermen, have regrown with straight stands of pine and oak. A powerful artesian well pours from a cleft in the bluff with a strength that endures even the deepest drought and fills a clear mossy pool. In the still water, you can see your own face. The land speaks the language of renewal.

When Tom and others arrived, the buildings were in a sad state of disrepair. Over the years, scores of volunteers have banded together to repair roofs and replace windows. The big kitchen once again smells of corn soup and strawberry drink on feast days. An arbor for dancing was built among the old apple trees, making a place where people can gather to relearn and celebrate Haudenosaunee culture. The goal was “Carlisle in reverse”: Kanatsiohareke would return to the people what was taken from them—their language, their culture, their spirituality, their identity. The children of the lost generation could come home.

After rebuilding, the next step was to teach the language, Tom’s anti-Carlisle motto being “Heal the Indian, Save the Language.” Kids at Carlisle and other mission schools all over the country had their knuckles rapped—and much worse—for speaking their native language. Boarding school survivors did not teach their children the language of their birth, in order to spare them hardship. And so the language dwindled right along with the land. Only a few fluent speakers remained, most over the age of seventy. The language was teetering on extinction, like an endangered species with no habitat to rear its young.

When a language dies, so much more than words are lost. Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else. It is a prism through which to see the world. Tom says that even words as basic as numbers are imbued with layers of meaning. The numbers we use to count plants in the sweetgrass meadow also recall the Creation Story, Én:ska—one. This word invokes the fall of Skywoman from the world above. All alone, én:ska, she fell toward the earth. But she was not alone, for in her womb a second life was growing. Tékeni—there were two. Skywoman gave birth to a daughter, who bore twin sons and so then there were three—áhsen. Every time the Haudenosaunee count to three in their own language, they reaffirm their bond to Creation.

Plants are also integral to reweaving the connection between land and people. A place becomes a home when it sustains you, when it feeds you in body as well as spirit. To recreate a home, the plants must also return. When I heard of the homecoming at Kanatsiohareke, visions of sweetgrass rose in my mind. I began looking for a way to bring them back to their old home.

From a drawer in the table Tom took out a bag of fringed buckskin and laid a piece of soft deerskin on the table. He poured onto it a rattling pile of smooth peach seeds, one side painted black, the other white. He drew us into the gambling game, guessing how many pits in each throw will be white and how many black. His pile of winnings mounded up while ours dwindled. While we shook the pits and threw them down he told me about the time this game was played for very high stakes.

The twin grandsons of Skywoman had long struggled over the making and unmaking of the world. Now their struggle came down to this one game. If all the pits came up black, then all the life that had been created would be destroyed. If all the pits were white, then the beautiful earth would remain. They played and played without resolution and finally they came to the final roll. If all came up black, it would be done. The twin who made sweetness in the world sent his thoughts out to all the living beings he had made and asked them to help, to stand on the side of life. Tom told us how in the final roll, as the peach stones hung for a moment in the air, all the members of Creation joined their voices together and gave a mighty shout for life. And turned the last pit white. The choice is always there.

 Photo by Un Bolshakov

Photo by Un Bolshakov

Tom’s daughter came to join the game. She held a red velvet bag in her hands and poured its contents onto the deerskin. Diamonds. The sharp facets threw rainbows of color. She beamed at us as we oohed and aahed. Tom explained that these arc Herkimer diamonds, beautiful quartz crystals as clear as water and harder than flint. Buried in the earth, they are washed along by the river and turn up from time to time, a blessing from the land.

When Skywoman first scattered the plants, sweetgrass flourished along this river, but today it is gone, just as the Mohawk language was replaced by English and Italian and Polish, the sweetgrass was crowded out by immigrants. Losing a plant can threaten a culture in much the same way as losing a language. Without sweetgrass, the grandmothers don’t bring the granddaughters to the meadows in July. Then what becomes of their stories? Without sweetgrass, what happens to the baskets? To the ceremony that uses these baskets?

The history of the plants is inextricably tied up with the history of the people, with the forces of destruction and creation. At graduation ceremonies at Carlisle, the young men were required to take an oath: “I am no longer an Indian man. I will lay down the bow and arrow forever and put my hand to the plow.’’ Plows and cows brought tremendous changes to the vegetation. Just as Mohawk identity is tied to the plants the people use, so it was for the European immigrants who sought to make a home here. They brought along their familiar plants, and the associated weeds followed the plow to supplant the natives. Plants mirror changes in culture and ownership of land. Today this field is choked by a vigorous sward of foreign plants that the first sweetgrass pickers would not recognize: quackgrass, timothy, clover, daisies. A wave of invasive purple loosestrife threatens from along the slough. To restore sweetgrass here we’ll need to loosen the hold of the colonists, opening a way for the return of the natives.

Tom asked me what it would take to bring sweetgrass back, to create a meadow where basket makers can once again find materials. Scientists have not devoted much effort to the study of sweetgrass, but basket makers know that it can be found in a wide array of conditions, from wetlands to dry railroad tracks. It thrives in full sun and especially favors moist, open soil. Tom bent and picked up a handful of the flood-plain soil and let it sift through his fingers. Except for the dense turf of exotic species, this seems like a good place for sweetgrass. Tom glanced at the old Farmall tractor in the lane, covered with a blue tarp. “Where can we get some seeds? ”

It’s a strange thing about sweetgrass seed. The plant sends up flowering stalks in early June, but the seeds it makes are rarely viable. If you sow a hundred seeds, you might get one plant if you’re lucky. Sweetgrass has its own way of multiplying. Every shiny green shoot that pokes up above ground also produces a long, slender white rhizome, winding its way through the soil. All along its length are buds, which will sprout up and emerge into the sunshine. Sweetgrass can send its rhizomes many feet out from the parent. In this way, the plant could travel freely all along the riversides. This was a good plan when the land was whole.

But those tender white rhizomes cannot make their way across a highway or a parking lot. When a patch of sweetgrass was lost to the plow it could not be replenished by seed from outside. Daniela has revisited many places where historical records show sweetgrass once lived, more than half of which no longer carry its fragrance. The major cause of decline seems to be development, native populations eliminated by wetland draining, converting wild places to agriculture and pavement. As nonnative species come in, they may also crowd out the sweetgrass—plants repeating the history of their people.

In nursery beds back at the university, I’ve been growing up a stock of sweetgrass, waiting for this day. I had searched far and wide for a grower who could sell us plants to begin the nursery and finally located an operation in California that had some. This seemed odd, since Hierochloc odorata does not occur naturally in California. When I asked about where their planting stock came from, I got a surprising answer: Akwesasne. It was a sign. I bought it all.

Under irrigation and fertilizer, the beds have grown thick. But cultivation is miles removed from restoration. The science of restoration ecology depends upon myriad other factors—soil, insects, pathogens, herbivores, competition. Plants are seemingly equipped with their own sense about where they will live, defying the predictions of science, for there is yet another dimension to sweetgrass’s requirements. The most vigorous stands are the ones tended by basket makers. Reciprocity is a key to success. When the sweetgrass is cared for and treated with respect, it will flourish, but if the relationship fails, so does the plant.

What we contemplate here is more than ecological restoration; it is the restoration of relationship between plants and people. Scientists have made a dent in understanding how to put ecosystems back together, but our experiments focus on soil pH and hydrology—matter, to the exclusion of spirit. We might look to the Thanksgiving Address for guidance on weaving the two. We are dreaming of a time when the land might give thanks for the people.

Here on my knees in the dirt, I find my own ceremony of reconciliation. Bend and dig, bend and dig. By now my hands are earth colored as I settle the last of the plants, whisper words of welcome, and tamp them down. I look over at Theresa. She is intent, finishing up her last bundle of transplants. Daniela is making her final notes.

The light is growing golden at the end of the day over our newly planted field of spindly sweetgrass. If I look at it just right, I can almost see the women walking a few years ahead. Bend and pull, bend and pull, their bundles growing thicker. Feeling blessed for this day by the river, I murmur to myself the words of thanksgiving.

The many paths from Carlisle—Tom’s, Theresa’s, and mine—converge here. In putting roots in the ground, we can join the mighty shout that turned the peach pit from black to white. I can take the buried stone from my heart and plant it here, restoring land, restoring culture, restoring myself.

My trowel digs deep into the soil and strikes against a rock. I scrape away the earth and pry it up to make room for the roots. I almost cast it aside, but it is strangely light in my hand. I pause for a closer look. It is nearly the size of an egg. With muddy thumb I rub away the dirt and a glassy surface is revealed, then another and another. Even beneath the dirt it gleams as clear as water. One face is rough and cloudy, abraded by time and history, but the rest is brilliant. There is light shining through. It is a prism and the fading light refracts, throwing rainbows from within the buried stone.

I dip it in the river to wash it clean and call Daniela and Theresa to come see. We are all struck with wonder as I cradle it in my hand. I wonder if it’s right to keep it, but I’m torn by thoughts of laying it back in its home. Having found it, I find I cannot let it go. We pack up our tools and head up to the house to say our good-byes for the day. I open my hand to show the stone to Tom, to ask the question. “This is the way the world works,” he says, “in reciprocity.” We gave sweetgrass and the land gave a diamond. A smile lights his face and he closes my fingers over the stone. “This is for you,” he says.

Photo by jeffrey james pacres

Photo by jeffrey james pacres

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist, educator and award-winning writer. She is the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

From Braiding Sweetgrass, Copyright ©2013 by Robin Wall Kimmerer, reprinted by permission of Milkweed Editions.

NextPainting Peace