For many centuries, the Western world has thought Communism to be an impossible ideal—sometimes even a dystopic nightmare. However, the Indigenous peoples successfully form a society close to the ideals of Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer valorizes the ways of Native American culture relevant to communism: the lack of a monetary system, the unity of individuals as a part of a greater community, and the harmony with the larger ecosystem humanity finds itself in.
First and foremost, Kimmerer praises the moneyless structure of Native American cultures, a core aspect of communist ideology. While many people can not possibly imagine how a society would function without any form of currency, the freedom from money does not mean the absence of currency. When she compares the economy of the colonizers with that of her people, she writes, “The currency of a gift economy is. . . reciprocity”. The author also notes that such a system would not be as readily exploited as the modern world currently employs. In a dream where she finds herself going to a stock market, except none of the merchants accept any form of payment, she takes only that which she needs and can’t find the will to overindulge, stating, “Had all the things in the market merely been a meagre price, I probably would have scooped up as much as I could.” From her dream, Kimmerer deduces that exploiting a gift economy would go against basic human nature. Certain items evidently have to be free from a monetary system, known as human needs. Kimmerer warns of the capitalist deprivation of these basic rights when she writes, “Water is a gift for all, not meant to be bought and sold. Don’t buy it.” These examples show that Kimmerer prefers the Indigenous communist systems over the modern capitalist norms.
She further supports communist ideals by promoting a collectivist way of thinking instead of an individualist one. When she explores the scientific and aesthetic cause for asters and goldenrods blooming side by side in the wild,
Kimmerer explains that “Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone.” The two flowers’ colours complement each other, thereby becoming more visually attractive. This same theme is replicated in the Three Sisters garden, wherein three crops growing together achieve more than visual unity. Each of these plants directly benefits the commune: the corn imparts a steady stalk upon which the beans can grow, the beans supply usable nitrogen for the group, and the squash defends the family from weeds and intrusive weeds species. “The gifts of each are more fully expressed when nurtured together than alone,” as they share a symbiotic relationship of giving and taking. This collectivist behaviour is used effectively by the flora, and Kimmerer writes that the Haudenosaunee replicate it in their negotiations and discussions. Unlike the United States of America, a nation that creates division by proudly chanting anthems that set them above all others, the people of Onondaga prefer the Thanksgiving Address, a lengthy recital wherein “No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question: ‘Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?’”. They instead seek to come together with all others, united in seeking common grounds and achieving their goals. Thus, Kimmerer believes that, by studying the works of nature, the Indigenous peoples prioritize the collective to ensure a better society.
Kimmerer makes a final point by invoking communism’s call for a closer consonance between progress and sustainability, its search for a perfect formula for innovation without the Earth’s destruction. When she writes about the Thanksgiving Address, she mentions the teachings of Freida Jacques, an Onondaga clan mother: “‘we human beings are not in charge of the world but are subject to the same forces as all of the rest of life.” The Thanksgiving Address reminds people of their role as mere members of a larger ecosystem. Although this role is mostly forgotten in modern society, Kimmerer believes that implementing a gift economy would rekindle the responsibility of caring for nature. According to Lewis Hyde, a British scholar, “‘We tend to respond to nature as a part of ourselves, not a stranger or alien available for exploitation” when a society is structured around a moneyless system. Kimmerer then presents, by way of anecdote, an experiment to test the hypothesis through one of her classes. She takes the students on a camping trip where they work with nature’s bountiful fruits to create shelter and beds and find foods of different sorts. By the last day, the students realize just how much they rely on the Earth’s blessings and are in deep discussion about how they can return the favour. Kimmerer begins to question this behaviour appearing from students who were, at best, merely partially enthusiastic about the whole activity, pondering, “Had we not waded waist-deep in the swamp, . . . made a spruce root basket or eaten cattail pancakes, would they even be debating what gifts they could offer in return?”. It is there that Kimmerer ascertains that humans are not naturally inclined to exploit nature; rather, they have been conditioned by modern societal structures to do so, exactly as great communist thinkers have warned about for ages.
Upon reading Braiding Sweetgrass, it is clear that even without mentioning the term “communism,” Kimmerer writes about Indigenous culture as having the three pillars of a successful communist society. The first purges all monetary trade, the second ensures humans work together, and the third acknowledges our roles as members of the greater Earth. If the modern world could adopt these Aboriginal methods, society would perhaps become better.
By Hero Fajardo Ayubo