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Environmental and Forest Biology Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer lectures at Carleton

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer—mother, ecologist and distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, as well as author of “Braiding Sweetgrass” and “Gathering Moss”—delivered the Frank G. and Jean M. Chelsey Lecture in Environmental Studies to 189 students, alumni, faculty and community members last Friday, October 9.

Dr. Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, known for her work bringing together Western science and Indigenous knowledge. Her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” is read by students in Environmental Ethics and Native American Religions courses at Carleton. 

“Her stature is on par with other leading voices on environmental issues including Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry,” said Kimberly Smith, a professor of Environmental Studies and Political Science. 

Smith opened the lecture with a land acknowledgement and commitment to interrupt ongoing injustices. Dr. Kimmerer greeted the audience in Potawatomi, expressing gratitude for being together and for the gifts of the Earth. 

She began with the story of the passenger pigeon, omiimii, and drew parallels to Indigenous populations. Her great-great-grandmother and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi were forced to walk the Trail of Death from Michigan to Kansas in 1838. “We should ask them about extinction,” said Dr. Kimmerer. “We should ask them about climate change. What is it like to exchange your habitat, a cool lush forest, for a hot, dry, dusty grassland?”

“It was an important reminder of the power of storytelling, of slowing down,” said Assistant Professor of Anthropology Constanza Ocampo-Raeder. Assistant Professor of Geology Dan Maxbauer agreed. Dr. Kimmerer “brings her entire self into her work as a scientist” he said. As a professor, it reminded him that “students should feel like they can bring their interests, background, and varied perspectives into every discipline.” This summer, Maxbauer, along with Kim Smith, Nancy Braker, and Dan Hernandez read Dr. Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass” as part of a Summer Research Circle organized by the Humanities Center. 

“She’s an incredible speaker. I was really pleased to be able to listen,” said alum and religion major Kate Hoeting ’20.  “I was mostly attuned to the Religious dynamic of her talk. Opening up our ideas of how we learn things about the environment feels very religious to me.” 

Valerie Salazar ’21, an American Studies major, connected Dr. Kimmerer’s story of the passenger pigeons to a reading from her American Nature Writing course at Carleton: “It was one of the first species we noticed becoming extinct… When we see birds now, they don’t take days to fly over.”

Eight faculty met with Dr. Kimmerer after the lecture and shared ways they incorporate place-based learning in their teaching at Carleton. “It was interesting to see that parts of our curriculum across the college are connected to this perspective, perhaps without our realizing it,” says Maxbauer. 

Ocampo-Raeder used the discussion time to ask Dr. Kimmerer why she “still insisted on justifying traditional ecological knowledge in terms of scientific thought.” 

“I wish she would have pushed it a little more,” Ocampo-Raeder said but noted Dr. Kimmerer’s audience includes many natural scientists that might otherwise dismiss Indigenous knowledge. “It’s 2020, and we still have to justify that other ways of knowing are okay,” lamented Ocampo-Raeder. 

“It is not the land that is broken, it is our relationship to the land,” said Dr. Kimmerer. The latter half of the lecture focused on the canon of Indigenous teachings known as the Honorable Harvest, a few of which include: never take the first one, ask permission, listen for the answer, reciprocate the gift and take only that which is given. “I know in some places if you talk to a plant, people would think you are crazy,” said Dr. Kimmerer, “but in a worldview that honors all beings as persons, we just call it respect.”

Following the lecture, Dr. Kimmer addressed audience questions on the scalability of the gift economy, connecting to a place that is not home, making decisions about restoration and knowing what is “given to us” in an urban society.

The Frank G. and Jean M. Chelsey Lecture rotates among departments in the sciences and humanities and was hosted this year by the Environmental Studies Department. The department discussed postponing due to COVID-19 but eventually agreed on a virtual talk. A recording of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lecture is available on the department’s website.

Correction: the print edition of this article incorrectly reported Dr. Kimmerer’s title as Professor of Environmental and Forest Ecology. She is a professor of Environmental and Forest Biology.

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