Famous for her synthesis of scientific knowledge and Indigenous wisdom, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer stands at the forefront of modern ecology. She holds a doctoral degree in plant biology and currently works as a State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. Kimmerer is also the author of “Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” In recent years, “Braiding Sweetgrass” has become well-known for elevating the use of Indigenous teachings alongside traditional scientific knowledge. The overarching metaphor in the book compares the three strands of braided sweetgrass to three essential elements of understanding the natural world: scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge and knowledge of the plants themselves. Her writing has given over 300,000 readers access to a new understanding of how they can better understand the world around them. 

Kimmerer has been named the 2024 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. The fellowship, created by Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69, highlights an individual whose contributions have had a significant impact on improving American society. On Feb. 28, 2024, Kimmerer accepted the award and gave her keynote speech to a fully-packed Levin Ballroom. She was introduced by Dr. Colleen Hitchcock (BIOL), who nominated Kimmerer for the fellowship. Hitchcock highlighted how Kimmerer’s work parallels Brandeis’ focus on social justice, as well as the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam: using one’s gifts to repair the world. 

“Bozho!” — pronounced bo-jo — was the first word Kimmerer used to greet her audience, sharing a greeting from the Potawatomi language. Before launching into her speech, she led the audience in the practice of Miigwetch, or gratitude. As she explained, it is essential to acknowledge the fact that “we woke up and had everything we needed.” Kimmerer made it immediately clear that her speech would emulate her writing style: captivating, poetic and unabashed. 

Kimmerer then introduced herself as a Potawatomi woman and member of the Awashinabee Three Fires community. She currently lives in Haudenosaunee territory in Syracuse, New York. To introduce her teachings, Kimmerer highlighted the “Dish with One Spoon” treaty, a land agreement between the Anishinaabek and Haudenosaunee peoples. As she explained, the center of the wampum belt is in the shape of feast dishes — one bowl for two nations. It represents the two nations’ agreement that Mother Nature is the bowl that must fill for them. In other words, this treaty recognizes the collective responsibility which the two nations hold to the land. But what exactly is that responsibility? As Kimmerer prompted the audience, “What does the Earth ask of us?” 

In answering this question, Kimmerer started by breaking down modern definitions of sustainability. For example, Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” In her analysis of these definitions, Kimmerer told a story wherein a tribal council discussed the true meaning of sustainability. In response to modern definitions, the elders said, “This sustainability just sounds like a way to keep taking.” In other words, modern definitions of sustainability lack reciprocity. Diving deeper into this concept, Kimmerer explained the tradition of braiding sweetgrass. She compared it to braiding hair, an act that is rooted in love, reciprocity and thankfulness. According to Kimmerer, that is the kind of love which we must show the Earth and that is missing from modern definitions of sustainability. The Earth, put simply, asks us for gratitude. 

So how do we show the Earth gratitude? As Kimmerer discussed, the process of reciprocity requires teachings both from Indigenous science and Western science, a concept that Kimmer calls “two-eyed view.” It was from this philosophy that she founded the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, which is dedicated to this kind of intellectual pluralism. Kimmerer fleshed out the elements of reciprocity that are missing in Western education, starting with how land is viewed. In conventional Western framework, land is property, capital and natural resources. In Kimmerer’s framework, derived from her heritage, land is identity, a sustainer, a teacher, a healer and a residence to non-human relatives. She then introduced the audience to the medicine wheel, a hallmark of Indigenous education. The wheel has four quadrants: body, mind, spirit and emotion. According to Kimmerer, only half of the body and mind circle is represented in Western education. To fully appreciate and love the world so that it might be restored properly, one needs the whole medicine wheel. 

Kimmerer then introduced what she calls “values-based restoration,” a holistic interpretation of how we can heal the natural world. A multifaceted concept, it starts with the idea that in healing the land, we are healing ourselves. Restoration is an opportunity to tell a different story about our relationship to land — a concept which Kimmerer calls “re-story-ation.” In her words, “I think of it as doing dishes in Mother Earth’s kitchen … That’s really where you have fun after Thanksgiving, because you’re doing the work together.” Another part of values-based restoration is the recognition of Indigenous science, and giving Indigenous people access to the land so that they can incorporate traditional knowledge in healing it. As Kimmerer put it, “a lot of my ancestors would have been arrested for burning the land” in reference to cultural burnings, which actually help revitalize the ecosystem

A large part of Kimmerer’s teachings centered around language, more specifically how it can be decolonized. According to Kimmerer, the most insidious example of linguistic imperialism lies in one simple word: “it.” As she described, “What if my grandma was here, and I said ‘it’ is bringing me cookies?” She explained that using the word “it” perpetuates human exceptionalism, which she called “a profound othering of the rest of the world.” In Potawatomi, it is impossible to use “it” for other life forms, because the language distinguishes between animate and inanimate nouns. Through anecdotes of teaching, Kimmerer illustrated how referring to natural beings as “someones” rather than “somethings” cultivated respect and admiration for the natural world in her students. Kimmerer even suggested a way to insert the concept of animacy into the English language: using the pronoun “ki/kin” for natural beings. “Ki” is derived from Bmaadizaki, a Potawatomi term for “a being wandering around.” For example, instead of saying “they are blossoming,” one would say “kin are blossoming.” “I’m not talking about anthropomorphism; I’m talking about recognition,” she said. 

Kimmerer’s visit was a two-day residency over Feb. 28 and Feb. 29, during which she visited multiple Brandeis courses. On Feb. 28, select students from the environmental studies department were chosen to have lunch with Kimmerer. Abby Cooper ’27, who attended the lunch, described Kimmerer as a warm presence. According to Cooper, the majority of the lunch was spent discussing the concept of reciprocity as well as the themes of “Braiding Sweetgrass.”