“Braiding Sweetgrass” and the Grammar of Animacy

I’m reading another fascinating book recommended to me by one of my nephews, John Hartman. It’s titled Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In her book, she blends her scientific knowledge with her indigenous wisdom. The result is (as one reviewer said) “A hymn of love to the world.”

In today’s blog, I will focus on one chapter she calls, “The Grammar of Animacy.” First, some background. When missionaries went to educate Indian populations, they were directed by their governments to forcibly assimilate the native peoples into “our culture.” This often meant ripping children from their families and herding them into large institutions where they were stripped of their names, clothes, and language. The motto for some of these boarding schools was: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Certainly this practice ranks as one of the most shameful in U.S. and Canadian history (as well as other countries).

(Photo by Pixabay)

At midlife, Kimmerer decides to learn her native language Potawatomi. Sadly, there are only about nine native speakers left. During her lessons, she realizes anew that language has a profound affect on how we view the word. She also appreciates that every language has its beauties as well as its limitations. And finally, what we have words for and how we express ourselves, often tell us what we value and what we do not.

One day, while walking in the woods, Kimmerer comes upon a mushroom that was not there the previous day. She is in awe of how this mushroom pushed up through the heavy layer of dead leaves overnight! She learns that Potawatomi has a word for this phenomenon: puhpowee. Translated into English it means “the life force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth during the night.” She was surprised to learn this, adding, “In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery.”

She compares Potawatomi with the scientific language she knows so well. She writes, “Science can be a language which reduces a being to its working parts. It is a language of objects.” In contrast, Potawatomi is a language of subjects. She quotes Fr. Thomas Berry, “…we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” European languages often refer to nouns as animate or inanimate. But in her native language, nouns and verbs can both be animate and/or inanimate. A bay can be inanimate if the water in the bay is dead. But the bay can also be animate because it could become a river, waterfall, or ocean. This distinction affects which pronouns we use.

Is a mushroom an IT or a WHO? (photo by Egor Kamelev – Rexels)

In English, if we see our grandmother stirring something on the stove, we would never say, “Look, it is making soup.” Our grandmother is not an “it.” An it in English is often inanimate or at least a non-person. But what if we came across a maple tree and, instead of saying, “It is beautiful!” We said, “She is beautiful!” Says Kimmerer, by saying she, we might not be so ready to reach for the chainsaw. In Potawatomi, beings are imbued with spirit. So “things” like sacred medicines, songs, and even stories, are all animate. The list of inanimate things in her language is very small and usually refers to things made by people. So if we see a table, we might ask in Potawatomi, “What is it?” But if we see an apple, we would ask, “Who is that being?”

Throughout the chapter, Kimmerer points out some other differences between the two languages. In English, only 30 percent of words are verbs, but in Potawatomi, 70% are verbs. Her native language has many words for thank you, but no word for please. This absence caused some missionaries to label the native language as crude—and by extension, the native people as crude. But there’s a deeper mystery here. When we ask for more potatoes or for someone to pass the salt in Potawatomi, we do not need to say please. The underlying cultural assumption is this: All food “was meant to be shared; no added politeness needed.”

In showing some of the subtleties of the Potawatomi language, Kimmerer points out the humor of language. She says of Potawatomi, “Even a small slip of the tongue can convert “We need more firewood” to “Take off your clothes.” When struggling to speak Potawatomi, Kimmerer says, to a native speaker she would sound like this: How are you? I am fine. Go to town. See bird. She says, “I would sound like Tonto’s side of the Hollywood dialogue with the Lone Ranger.” She and the other students in the class sometimes filled in the gaps in their Potawatomi with their high school Spanish. They dubbed their new language Spanawatomi!

The very titles of the chapters in Braiding Sweetgrass hint at the richness and beauty of this book: “The Council of Pecans,” “Allegiance to Gratitude,” “Asters and Goldenrod,” “Sitting in a Circle,” “Epiphany in the Beans.” For me Kimmerer’s book is magical. I’m so grateful my nephew recommended it to me. Now I’m doing the same for you!

(Dreamcatcher – Photo by Pixabay)

For reflection: Did anything in today’s blog stand out for you? If so, what and why?

Do you know a second language? If so, do you see differences between this language and your native language? Did learning another language reveal anything to you about your native language?

If we saw trees, African Violets, robins, and ants—as well as inanimate things like rocks, rivers, and soil as “persons” and referred to them as “who,” what effect might that have on our view of the world?

Can you give any examples in English of how our words influence the way we think? Or how the words we choose reveal our attitude to what or whom we are talking about? (Be attentive to the words used during political campaigns…)

PS: I ask your prayers for a zoom retreat I’ll be giving this week to the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration located in Colorado Springs, CO. It runs three days: May 24-26. Thank you for your prayers!

For today I chose a 5 minute video called “Tribute to Mother Earth.” It consists of Native American instrumental music set against a background of nature photography. There are no words (This post already contained enough words…) Instead, just relax and enjoy the beautiful music and the visuals.

I invite you to respond below to this reflection.


  1. Mary James on May 22, 2022 at 10:54 am

    I found this a wonderful meditation on
    God’s creation. I think that if we had always referred to inanimates as she or he instead of
    it, we’d be much more aware of taking care
    of it. We’d not be in the sustainability predicament
    we are now. Thanks so much for another good
    book to read

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:20 am

      Dear Sr. James, I totally agree with you about seeing the “personhood” in all things. It would lead to greater respect and reverence for all creation. Thanks for always reading my blog! I hope to see you in the hallway soon. (This is a private joke between Sr. James and me…) Melannie

  2. Nan Hughes Poole on May 22, 2022 at 11:15 am

    The book Braiding Sweetgrass had a profound impact on me. What a beautiful, soulful, intelligent scientist, thinker, and human Robin Wall Kimmerer is! How intricate the interactions between crops indigenous people planted (at different depths), maximizing their interactions to aid their growth. Or the thinning they do by only picking some plants, allowing others to grow more fully. Or even not taking the first patch of medicinal herbs you see, knowing how important it is not to be greedy. First Nations’ knowledge was far richer than most of us have given them credit for, for hundreds of years. In addition, her comments on motherhood ring true and deep. I have sent this book to many, many friends, and so I second your recommendation, Sister Melannie! Thank you!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:22 am

      Nan, I was so excited to know that you loved “Braiding Sweetgrass” too! Thanks for adding a few more details about this beautiful book! Melannie

  3. Caroline on May 22, 2022 at 1:02 pm

    I read Braiding Sweetgrass about a year ago. It had a profound effect on me as it offered so much food for thought. Dr. Kimmerer did an excellent job in describing our Native Americans, their way of life, and how they were treated. There is much to learn about life in this publication. Unfortunately, it seems human beings still have a lot to learn in how we treat each other & Mother Earth. We still have a lot to pray for. Thank you, Sister Melannie, for featuring Braiding Sweetgrass. God bless.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:23 am

      And you too have already read this book, Caroline. How wonderful! Yes, I agree that “there is so much to learn about LIFE” in this book. Thanks for your words! Melannie

  4. Carol L. on May 22, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is in NE Kansas, numbering about 4000. Kansas has a female Senator from that Band. I plan to read Braiding Sweetgrass. My heart has always been broken about how horribly the Native Americans were treated! An amazing Meditation, Sr.Melanie! You never disappoint, and most often, surprise and amaze!!

    • Connie on May 23, 2022 at 7:15 am

      I love your last sentence. So true.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:25 am

      Carol, Thanks for expanding our knowledge about the Potawatomi Nation… (and I’m humbled by your last sentence… thank you) Melannie

  5. Joni Dugan on May 22, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    I read and prayed and discussed this book in our book group earlier this year. When I first got the book, I thought I must have made a mistake — this is all about botany and plants and woods, etc. And as much as I love nature and woods I knew this wasn’t it. But oh my, I was so mistaken. It is one of the most beautiful books that I have read. Our book group added so much besides to all its pages. I am so glad you recommended it, Melanie. One member of our book group had studied and spent time with indigenous people. What a gift she was. Only one problem: I ran out of magic marker when I started marking things that touched me and I wanted to remember!!!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:29 am

      Dear Joni of Kansas, How lucky you were to have a book group to read and discuss this precious book with. I put very light check marks or tiny crosses in pencil by passages I found quite extraordinary… As a result, the book is pretty marked up! Thank God for good books! What would we do without them? Melannie

  6. John Hopkins on May 22, 2022 at 7:16 pm

    Good evening, Sr. Melannie…
    Good evening, all…

    I have been pining for a book, and based on your always interesting blog and the previous five testimonials, I have found it! I can’t wait.

    When we were young, we lolloped loose-laced through the lilacs,
    climbed trees, and found stability on their limbs that allowed
    us to tower over our small world,
    and when the wind blew we smelled the lilacs,
    and when the wind blew, their tops swayed,
    and we hugged their trunks, gazing at the world,
    smiling at the clouds, and neve knowing
    our trees were smiling too.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:35 am

      John, How nice of your to respond today with a little gem of a poem. I like the idea of the trees smiling. Yesterday as I was strolling in our courtyard, I gently patted a few peonies “who” are ready to pop open. I thought I heard one whisper, “Thanks! That felt good!” Melannie

  7. Christine Bianco on May 22, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    Good evening Sr. Melannie….just wanted to say thanks to you and your IT department for fixing the “delivery” problem. They have gone above and beyond, this time I got it on Sunday!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for letting me know, Christine. I posted it for Sunday and I got mine about 9:45 AM. Things are looking up… Melannie

  8. Shirley on May 22, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    Loved the blog and especially the music. Native American music is so relaxing. Thank you again for a fantastic blog, so interesting. Prayers for your upcoming zoom retreat.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:37 am

      Thanks for writing, Shirley. And thanks for your prayers for the retreat! Melannie

  9. June Lawniczak on May 23, 2022 at 9:36 am

    Thanks for suggestion of a book that sounds right up my alley! And I love the beautiful video! I’d like to also tell you about a handmade flute I purchased from a wood carving friend of mine. He has made many flutes over the years. I asked him to make me one a couple of years ago. And it even has a ” birth certificate ” ! I’m teaching myself how to play it. Luckily the internet has lots of sheet music to offer. I have always loved the beautiful Indian music.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:39 am

      June, Your flute story fascinated me! How wonderful that you know the craftsman who actually created the flute. And I love the idea of a flute having a birth certificate! That fits right in with Kimmerer’s ideas on animacy! I admire you for taking up the flute like this! Melannie

  10. Rose on May 23, 2022 at 10:37 am

    As a former high school English teacher and lover of language, I love this blog! The relationship between our thinking and the words/language we use and the values/biases they reveal has long fascinated me. And it’s not just politicians. Pay attention to all sorts of speakers. I think if we realize how much we reveal when we speak, more of us (myself included!) would be more silent! 😉 Thanks for this post, Melannie.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on May 23, 2022 at 10:45 am

      Rose, Hello to another former English teacher like myself! I agree with everything you said—even the part about being more silent when we realize ALL we reveal about ourselves through the words we speak! Imagine how writers feel. Their words are “carved in ink” in every book (or blog!) they write. It takes courage to put yourself out there in such a public manner. At the same time, speaking and writing enables us to grow in humility–when we make mistakes, choose the wrong word, or eventually change our mind about what we said or wrote… Thanks for writing, Rose! Melannie

  11. Connie on May 24, 2022 at 3:17 pm

    Tremendous – I loved this and will be getting the book. The video was so beautiful! Thank you!!!!

  12. Ellen on May 24, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    Hi Sr. Melannie. Thank you for this review. The book has been on my “to read” list for a while, and now I feel inspired to get to it soon. I wanted to share this interview with the author that was featured on the podcast, On Being. That is where I first heard about Braiding Sweetgrass, and I think you would enjoy the interview. I am a regular reader of your blog – you brighten up my Monday mornings! Thanks, Ellen


  13. Marie on May 25, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    Love that book, your blog and the video. Thank you! Marie

  14. Jean Canatsey on May 26, 2022 at 8:00 am

    I loved the way she speaks of trees because I feel the same way about them and have actually cried over them. I think of a tree as a living being and feel we are murdering them when we cut them indiscriminately.
    Several years ago my husband and I pulled into a Walmart parking lot and noticed they were pulling up trees by the roots and feeding them into a chipper to enlarge their parking space. We left without shopping and that scene remains seared in my memory.
    Back in the 80’s we lived in the country. We were in need of money and agreed to sell a Walnut Tree. They were indiscriminate in their cutting and loaded all the wood into their truck that they had cut in the process. I remember running after them screaming as they were leaving.
    I feel we our killing our planet in the name of progress. Money is our king.😢

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