How a new adaptation of the hit book Braiding Sweetgrass delivers Indigenous wisdom to a younger generation
'When you read this book, it is a gift for you and then how you are in the world is a gift.'
It took Braiding Sweetgrass nearly seven years to make it onto The New York Times bestseller list. It has been flying off shelves ever since.
Now, the 2013 book by American scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer has been adapted for young adults.
Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults brings Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the lessons Kimmerer brought to the fore to a younger generation. Adapted by writer Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt, this new edition reinforces the importance of gaining ecological knowledge from earth's oldest teachers: the plants around us.
Smith is a mixed-heritage — Cree, Lakota and Scottish — author who often writes and speaks about the resilience of Indigenous communities in Canada. She is also the author of the children's books Speaking Our Truth and You Hold Me Up and the novels Tilly and Tilly and the Crazy Eights.
Neidhardt is a Diné visual artist and illustrator.
Smith and Neidhardt previously collaborated on When We Are Kind, a children's book that celebrates simple acts of everyday kindness. Neidhardt's first children's book, When We Are Kind was a finalist for the 2022 Blue Spruce Award.
Smith and Neidhardt spoke to Shelagh Rogers at the book launch for Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults in Victoria about what made them want to adapt the original book.
Shelagh Rogers: How did the original Braiding Sweetgrass change you?
Monique Gray Smith: It woke me up in areas where I didn't realize I was asleep.
Nicole Neidhardt: I just looked at the world slightly differently, especially in the places that I've been living in the last five to six years. Recognizing how little I knew about my non-human relatives around me, but that they were important relatives for me to get to know.
When I first read that book, I wanted to learn about the plants in this area. I wanted to learn about the animals and the insects and try to engage more in meeting my relations that are all around me.
Shelagh Rogers: What does sweetgrass mean to you?
Monique Gray Smith: It means love, kindness and care. Those are the teachings for me. As humanity, we're looking for ways to braid our way back to humanity, to be together. And there's something about the smell!
Neidhardt: I'm Diné Navajo, so sweetgrass isn't a medicine that we use a lot, but through trade and being a contemporary Indigenous person who lives in cities, I've definitely engaged with a lot of teachings around sweetgrass. For a lot of my friends, sweetgrass is a very important plant relative for them in their communities. It's kind of how I've come into community with some people so it's really special in that way.
LISTEN | Artist Alexandria Maillot on Braiding Sweetgrass:
Rogers: Let's talk about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address as it's shown in the book. Monique, what is it?
Monique Gray Smith: It is an oratory that can last anywhere from a few moments to four hours, depending on who's giving it. It is an honouring and a thanksgiving — not Thanksgiving like we celebrate in October or in the United States. But a worldview around giving thanks to all that nourishes us, feeds us, inspires us, cares for us, helps us stay alive and our relationships as human beings as well.
We've been waiting 500 years for this to be shared. If it had been shared 500 years ago, we wouldn't be in the place we're in today.
It was gifted to Robin Wall Kimmerer by Oren R. Lyons, an Onondaga Nation member and a Haudenosaunee faith keeper, to include in Braiding Sweetgrass.
She asked him, 'Can I include this in my book?'
And he said, 'we've been waiting 500 years for this to be shared. If it had been shared 500 years ago, we wouldn't be in the place we're in today because it is about giving thanks everyday.' Again, not from that cultural appropriate way of Thanksgiving, but true giving thanks.
Shelagh Rogers: Nicole, can you talk about how you illustrated that section of the book?
Nicole Neidhardt: I really wanted to create this feeling of abundance when you look at the illustration. How can you illustrate around the text so it still has the space it needs, but also be able to convey what the Thanksgiving address is speaking to? I approached it as a wheel; this circle that holds all of these elements that the Thanksgiving address is acknowledging.
Monique Gray Smith: The book is for nine to 90-year-olds: young adults and young at heart. But I also think it can be used in preschools and kindergartens because children can look at that beautiful illustrations Nicole has done and identify all that they're grateful for.
Shelagh Rogers: How do you imagine this book's impact in ten years' time?
Monique Gray Smith: Those who are reading the books today are going to be our CEOs, bank managers, the oil company managers, educator, bus drivers. They'll be making different decisions.
Part of the gift of this book is that it helps our young leaders and hopefully the readers of today make different decisions, to see the world as a gift rather than a commodity. It's a reciprocal relationship that when you read this book, it is a gift for you and then how you are in the world is a gift.
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Nicole Neidhardt: When I imagine youth in ten years time, if this book was as transformational for them as it was for me, I'm very hopeful that they can shift the way they see themselves in the world. That they will act on their relationships that they're trying to create with the world around them and actually practice relationality with the world around them and their non-human relatives.
It's crucial for young people to be able to engage with these ideas at a time in their lives where they're learning so many things about the world and how they're going to be in the world.
It's a reciprocal relationship that when you read this book, it is a gift for you and then how you are in the world is a gift.
Shelagh Rogers: What does reciprocity mean to you?
Monique Gray Smith: For me, it's that teaching that what I put out into the world is what comes back to me.
What we're seeing with the Earth right now, with the fever she has and the shaking she has, is what's happening to many of us as human beings. We are in that reciprocal relationship. So the more we care for ourselves, the more we nourish our spirits, it will have a reciprocal relationship with the land.
We have become in some ways a society that craves belongings. I think what we're actually craving is belonging. That's what being in reciprocal relationship is about.
Nicole Neidhardt: When I think about reciprocity, I think about community and the people in my community. But I also think about, again, these communities of plant and animal life and the land and the water. How do we give to those communities in ways that can support, uphold and lift them up?
Just by doing that, we get so much back. It's a practice of care.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.