B R A I D I N G S WE E T G R A S S
Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly
picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.
Golden green and glossy above, the stems are banded with purple
and white where they meet the ground. Hold the bundle up to your
nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river
water and black earth and you understand its scientific name:
Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our
language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother
Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t
know you’d forgotten.
A sheaf of sweetgrass, bound at the end and divided into thirds,
is ready to braid. In braiding sweetgrass—so that it is smooth,
glossy, and worthy of the gift—a certain amount of tension is
needed. As any little girl with tight braids will tell you, you have to
pull a bit. Of course you can do it yourself—by tying one end to a
chair, or by holding it in your teeth and braiding backward away
from yourself—but the sweetest way is to have someone else hold
the end so that you pull gently against each other, all the while
leaning in, head to head, chatting and laughing, watching each
other’s hands, one holding steady while the other shifts the slim
bundles over one another, each in its turn. Linked by sweetgrass,
there is reciprocity between you, linked by sweetgrass, the holder
as vital as the braider. The braid becomes finer and thinner as you
near the end, until you’re braiding individual blades of grass, and
then you tie it off.
Will you hold the end of the bundle while I braid? Hands joined by
grass, can we bend our heads together and make a braid to honor
the earth? And then I’ll hold it for you, while you braid, too.
I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as
the plait that hung down my grandmother’s back. But it is not mine
to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer,
in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the
world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of
knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe
scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters
most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories
and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with
earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a
different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine
for each other.