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A Book Review - Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

“To me, an experiment is a kind of conversation with plants,” Robin Wall Kimmerer and Monique Gray Smith write in In Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.


In a beautifully written and illustrated text young scholars are invited into the world of indigenous wisdom, a place where “kinship includes plants and animals” and scientific understanding is inseparable from our relationships with the natural world.


Traditional stories or “collective treasures of a people” guide young scholars through an exploration of earth and natural sciences. They are introduced to The People of Maple Nation, the Council of Pecans, and the Old Growth Children (cedars). Through these characters, students are encouraged to see the science of the natural world through new eyes.


Bean, Corn and Squash; Three Sisters who grow, protect, and nurture each other, help us understand the connection of the plants to each other. The Sister’s symbiotic relationships are contextualized with vocabulary boxes and illustrations that serve to make plant biology lively and accessible to all readers.


“Beans grow like babies in the womb. Each little beanlet in a pod is attached by a fragile green cord, the funiculus. Just a few millimeters long, it is the analog to the human umbilical cord…every bean has a little scar from the funiculus, a colored spot on its seed coat, the hilum. Every bean has a belly button.”


And through the indigenous story, The Three Sisters bring a different worldview to life. Kimmerer and Smith call on the reader to notice lessons the sisterly plant community is sharing. “Together these plants –corn, beans, and squash–feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations…”


Every student learns the traditional scientific method of experimentation. But what happens when our science students have the opportunity to explore other ways of knowing? Kimmerer and Smith explore this idea with a chapter on a young scientist whose master’s level field work is situated in both the indigenous and traditional academic worlds. A study of sweetgrass gives the reader insight into the relations of the grass with humans and the value of looking to the plant for understanding. “Science and traditional knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”


Science teachers interested in deepening students' understanding of the complicated nature of scientific knowledge, literature teachers exploring the idea of story and the impact of language, and social studies teachers building a study of history that is inclusive of indigenous people telling their own story should look to Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults.


Kimmerer and Smith tell us “plants answer by the way they live and by their responses to change” and they provide students and their teachers with a guide for engaging in plant study that builds a deep understanding through insight, awareness, and connection. The book is filled with questions for further discovery, ideas for action, and hopeful strategies for building stewardship in the classroom.


If we seek young scholars who ask why, and then why not…if we seek learning communities where every student can say “I belong here,” …and if we seek educational experiences that connect young people to their communities, then “How do we know?” is a question for every discipline and Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults is a book for every classroom.


Connecting to the Standards


Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults offers an accessible text that can enrich the teaching of a variety of state and local standards. For example, the Next Generation Science Standards include the following in their high school Earth and Space Sciences domain:

Science Addresses Questions About the Natural and Material World

●       Science and technology may raise ethical issues for which science, by itself, does not provide answers and solutions. (HS-ESS3-2)

●       Science knowledge indicates what can happen in natural systems—not what should happen. The latter involves ethics, values, and human decisions about the use of knowledge. (HS-ESS3-2)

●       Many decisions are not made using science alone, but rely on social and cultural contexts to resolve issues. (HS-ESS3-2)

Science is a Human Endeavor

●       Science is a result of human endeavors, imagination, and creativity. (HS-ESS3-3)



Lisa Furlong

Lisa is an educational leader with over 30 years of experience in nonprofit and public education management and development. As a teacher, principal and system level director, she is committed to working collaboratively with students, parents, and educators to create engaging and welcoming public school communities.

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