Learning the Names of Plants

Kishki, Thuja plicata, cedar.
Kishki, Thuja plicata, cedar.

Last week, Western Washington University (WWU) and Northwest Indian College hosted Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi), author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss. Dr. Kimmerer is a botanist and professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She has become well-known for the brilliant ways she weaves stories with her love of plants and is one of many scientists helping to shine a light on the ways our ancestors knew and understood the natural world—what is now in vogue to call “traditional ecological knowledge” or TEK. I was invited by the organizers to facilitate a conversation on Indigenous land sovereignty and stewardship between Dr. Kimmerer and several Indigenous students, faculty, and community members in a panel discussion which took place prior to Dr. Kimmerer’s main presentation. You can watch our discussion in the recorded video here, as well as Dr. Kimmerer’s presentation on “The Honorable Harvest” here.

There’s a lot I could say about the discussion, especially regarding the absolute pleasure it was to be in conversation with other Indigenous people on these topics. It was my intention to host a discussion that focused on the ways we can learn from one another, and to lift up the important work happening in tribal communities all over to connect traditional knowledge of plants and land management with the people. I was heartened to hear from Anna Cook (Swinomish) of 13 Moons Community Gardens, a traditional food and medicine garden located on the Swinomish reservation, as well as Elizabeth Bragg (Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Eastern Cherokee) of Long Hearing Farm, a rural farm cooperative. We were also joined by WWU faculty member Marco Hatch (Samish), WWU student Sienna Reid (Tlingit), and the AI/AN and First Nations executive director and tribal liaison for WWU Laural Ballew (Swinomish). Their work is inspiring and left me feeling more hopeful for the future.

I’ve been musing on one part of the discussion in particular. As we talked about how to avoid despair in the face of colonization and ecological disaster, the conversation turned to plants—specifically, the importance of getting to know the plants that are important to us, our land, and our peoples. Dr. Kimmerer shared:

“Indigenous food sovereignty all comes down to cultivating a quality of attention that our ancestors perhaps took for granted. But because we have so many distractions … that try to divert our attention and say, “don’t pay attention to beans, pay attention to what you can buy at the grocery store. … Much of the work we’re doing … is an act of reclaiming over our attention, saying “I’m going to attend to those things that give us life, not to those things that take it away from us.” We do that with language, with seed saving, with land care, with learning the names of the plants on the landscape.”

This reminds me of something I’ve read about Native science (was it Deloria? Or Cajete? I can’t find it now), which is that, from an Indigenous perspective, the universe is not a cold, impersonal, and unknowable place. In fact, the universe is personal, and directly accessible to all of us, in an intimate way—and the development of that intimacy is rooted in our ability to both observe the world around us, but also to participate in it.

At times, I have been moved to act to try and improve the world in some way (like when I founded a nonprofit organization in Colorado, or when I ran for public office), but have then felt disappointed when the work I did was finished, or by how slow the process of community-level change seemed to be. It is hard for my Western mind to conceive of something as simple as learning the names of plants to be “improving the world.” But as I consider my own decolonization, and the reclaiming of the knowledge, practices, and worldview of my ancestors, I am able to see that effort in a new way. Authors Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavendar Wilson quote the Cree scholar Winona Wheeler in Indigenizing the Academy, Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, saying: “Decolonization is about empowerment—a belief that situations can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own peoples’ values and abilities, and a willingness to make change. It is about transforming negative reactionary energy into the more positive rebuilding energy needed in our communities.”

PLANTS HAVE SO MUCH TO GIVE US, ALL WE HAVE TO DO IS ASK BY MARY SIISIP GENIUSZBuilding relationships, avoiding the trap of despair—these are tools for decolonization and empowerment. And thankfully, learning the names of plants is something I can do. It’s also joyful! The process of learning to recognize native plants, observing as they experience their seasons while I walk my favorite forest hikes, is one of the best parts of my days. To assist my learning of both language and plant identities, I recently snagged a copy of the book, Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask by Mary Siisip Geniusz. I think it will be helpful as I begin my Ojibwe language course in the fall.

Recently, I’ve been collecting kishki (also spelled gishki), or cedar, on some of my forest hikes, accepting small branches after giving thanks. For the Neshnabek people, kishki is the plant of the direction of the South, and it teaches us compassion and how to express ourselves honestly without hurting others. It may go without saying that kishki has been an important plant for many peoples since time immemorial. I’m enjoying the opportunity to learn more about her. What plants are you getting to know? Share in the comments!

Mickki Garrity is a student at Northwest Indian College.

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