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robin kimmerer

Robin Kimmerer, PhD

Like many Native nations, the Potawatomi people were removed from their ancestral lands. Even after they were relocated in Oklahoma, the disruption of the relationship between people and their place continued, as children were sent away to boarding school. My grandfather and great uncle were taken from the Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma and sent to the Carlisle Indian School  in Pennsylvania. My uncle ran away from the school and made it back to Oklahoma, but the rest of my family became permanently rooted on the east coast.
I was born in 1953 in Schenectady New York. Having both Potawatomi and Caucasian heritage, I grew up feeling like there were two worlds. I was familiar with the native world and mainstream society, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in either one of them. One place I truly felt comfortable was outdoors. Although my family was removed from the, tribal lands they instilled in me a deep respect and love for the land of the northeast, especially the Adirondack Mountains. I grew up with a lot of knowledge about plants and the woods, and a deep sense of being rooted to the earth.
It was this love of the land that made me know from a very young age that I wanted to work with plants, but I didn’t know that such a profession existed. As a little girl I believed I had to be a nurse or a teacher because I thought those were the only jobs a woman could have! But when I was in sixth grade, my parents bought me a book on swamps written by an ecologist. I thought, “Oh my gosh! There is a career where you get to stomp around in swamps? That is what I want to do!”
With the goal of becoming an ecologist firmly in place, I attended the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse (SUNY), where I majored in forest botany and minored in forest entomology. However, while I knew I wanted to be an ecologist, I had some negative stereotypes about scientists as hermits who never left their labs! I also thought it meant you had to be good at mathematics, which has been a life long struggle for me. The kind of science I wanted to do was outdoors, in communities.
My worst fears about laboratory science came true when, after college, I worked as a microbiologist for a pharmaceutical company. I found the work very isolating and repetitive, and it was this experience that propelled me into graduate school. I attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I earned my Ph.D. in Botany in 1983. After a few years of teaching at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, I became a professor at SUNY, the same college I attended as an undergraduate.
As a professor at the SUNY, I am working with members of the nearby Onondaga Nation (who are part of the Iroquois Confederacy) to restore communities of native plants, including black ash trees, sweetgrass and medicine plants on native lands. I know from personal experience how changes in landscape and place can affect families for generations. I have learned that sense of place is as vital to humans as it is to plants and animals. In scientific terms, you might think of this sense of place as a niche in the eco-system, or the way a community of plants and animals interact with their environment.
Although the Onondaga haven’t been dislocated from their traditional homelands like my Potawatomi family, they are losing parts of their eco-system that are essential to their history and culture. Sweetgrass and the black ash trees have long been used in Iroquois basketry. Due to changing environmental factors the numbers of black ash and sweet grass are greatly declining. This change in the natural landscape of the Onondaga Nation could potentially affect the way future generations experience their culture.
It is this work with the Onondaga and the restoration of native plants that has made me see my greatest obstacle turned out to be my greatest gift. The uneasy sense of being split between two worlds that I felt so often as a young woman has become the catalyst for working with the Native American and scientific communities. I realized that there was an immense amount of knowledge about the earth in both the scientific and indigenous communities, but neither side was communicating with each other. I saw that if you wanted to combine the strengths of both science and traditional ecological knowledge, you needed somebody who could cross that gulf. I think my work is to try and be a bridge of communication between these two worlds.
In my life I often felt out of place, but through my work and relationship to land I learned how to make a place for myself. In a sense, I found my own niche in the eco-system. It is my hope that through using both science and traditional knowledge in ecological restoration the contributions of Native American culture can be understood as a respected partner with science and people can learn to appreciate all forms of knowledge.