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Civic Religious Pluralism: Native American Teachings are Central to Interfaith Leadership

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional
August 23, 2021 Becca Hartman-Pickerill Interfaith Youth Core

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 2, August 2021

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Imagine a society in which people are treated with respect, enjoy mutual relationship, and work together for the common good. Hold that image for a moment—now what are examples, glimpses, even partially realized iterations of that ideal?

Robin Wall Kimmerer opens her beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass with a story of leading this very exercise for a group of third year students in her general ecology course. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation” (https://www.robinwallkimmerer.com/) and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. When asked in a beginning of her general ecology course survey to “rate their knowledge of positive interaction between people and land,” her students’ median response was “none” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 6). When asked to rate their understanding of the “negative interactions between humans and the environment” nearly 100% expressed confidence that “humans and nature are a bad mix” (p. 6). If I asked you to imagine a society devoid of respect, mutual relationship or common action for the common good and asked for examples, is this easier or more difficult to conjure than my opening prompt?

Kimmerer’s point is not that we should ignore the harmful relationship between people and land; in fact her book weaves a portrait in devastating detail of the brutality enacted upon the land of the United States and its native peoples. However, Kimmerer argues that if the next generation of botanists cannot share one positive example of people and the land living in mutual benefit, what is the work they are fit to do? Similarly, I would never argue that we should ignore how individuals, communities and organizations fall short of respect, mutuality, and the common good, and indeed there are ample examples of this in our everyday lived experience and news consumption. Yet if those stories are all we know, how can we build a better society?

My colleagues and I at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) often ask this very question in a positive frame — what are the spaces where it is easier for people to cooperate? Who built them? How did they become that way? How do they grow and evolve? Where is that needed in your neighborhood, workplace and community?

Kimmerer’s insights into mutually inspiring relationships, the second part of pluralism, are essential reading for aspiring civic leaders. Let us dig deeper, then, into the beauty, connectedness and clear-eyed but committed optimism of Kimmerer’s work. The rest of this piece will explore three aspects of this second part of pluralism from her expertise as a botanist, Pottawatomie citizen, and exquisite storyteller, with an interpretive eye to the work of civic religious pluralism. Her focus on co-evolving, beauty in contrast, and hope in relationship have as much to teach us about the human endeavor as it does human-earth relationships.

Time and time again Kimmerer calls the reader to a spirit of responsibilities (not only rights), of mutuality (not maximizing short term profits) and a restoration. “If good citizens agree to uphold the laws of the nation, then I choose natural law, the law of reciprocity, of regeneration, of mutual flourishing” (Kimmerer, 2013, p.173).


To remedy her students’ and likely the broader public’s lack of literacy of reciprocal relationships between humans and land, Kimmerer weaves these narratives throughout her book. For instance, in the region of her research, Black Ash trees grew in greatest numbers and health in areas where the native communities maintained the art of basket weaving; there was a respectful thinning of trees that enabled young saplings to emerge and grow (Kimmerer, 2013). In co-evolution's simplest form, humans select for the fruits or vegetables that are the sweetest and spread those seeds through consumption.

Food plants and people act as selective forces on each other’s evolution—the thriving of one in the best interest of the other. This, to me, sounds a bit like love.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 124)

At IFYC we often introduce the US as a potluck nation; in contrast to the idea of a melting pot, the potluck nation is a place where each person and community is invited to bring their best to the table, to contribute and maintain their distinctiveness, with a recognition of the community’s needs. This again invites us to think about places where religious pluralism is thriving and ask what factors (like the basket weavers in the example above) are enabling this development.

Beauty in Contrast

One of my favorite stories of Braiding Sweetgrass begins with Kimmerer’s childhood. She recognizes the beauty of the Aster and Goldenrod growing side by side, and it is among the many observations of nature that inspire her to pursue botany in college (for she had to choose between botany and poetry). Her words paint a picture much more elegantly than my own,

If a fountain could jet bouquets of chrome yellow in dazzling arches of chrysanthemum fireworks, that would be Canada Goldenrod. Each three-foot stem is a geyser of tiny gold daisies, ladylike in miniature, exuberant en masse. Where the soil is damp enough, they stand side by side with their perfect counterpart, New England Asters. Not the pale domesticates of the perennial border, the weak sauce of lavender or sky blue, but full-on royal purple that would make a violet shrink. The daisy like fringe of purple petals surrounds a disc as bright as the sun at high noon, a golden-orange pool, just tantalizing shade darker than the surrounding goldenrod. (p. 40)

Kimmerer sees this stunning beauty and asks why but her professors tell her that is not an appropriate question for a botanist. As it turns out, there is an evolutionary benefit to these complimentary colors to be side by side, as the contrast attracts more pollinators and advances the continuation of the flowers themselves.

There is an interesting phenomenon that exists in interfaith work—it is often in the relationship with people who believe very different things on matters of ultimate concern that individuals develop a deeper and more reflexive commitment to or understanding of their own faith and beliefs. For those of us committed to mutually inspiring relationships in a diverse democracy, I welcome the invitation to seek out and foster beauty, especially in the midst of great diversity.   

Hope in Relationship

As we hear time and again about how divided and polarized the nation is, it may begin to feel nearly impossible to weave a healthy whole out of the US’s disparate voices and communities. This disempowerment is a force of which Kimmerer is keenly aware and ready to address:

Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth.  … Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. (p. 328)

Like many faith traditions, Kimmerer articulates a way to act our way into a new mode of believing, explicitly naming political action and civic engagement as “powerful acts of reciprocity with the land,” antidotes to despair (2013, p. 174).

For those of us in the work of fostering a healthy and abundant diverse democracy, it is crucial to continue to look for models of success and to tell those stories. As Kimmerer states, “Here is where our most challenging and most rewarding work lies, in restoring a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. And love” (2013, p. 336). This powerful exploration of mutuality requires time, commitment, and resources, and there is no other path forward.


Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.