Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Commencement Speech
| May 23, 2015
Bozho Shaapodskae gizhkokwe ndezhnekas Anishinaabe Bodwewadmi kwe ndaw. Migize doodem, minwa mko ddodem. Migwech kine gego gamizhang.
Let us begin with gratitude, for we are showered daily with the gifts of the Earth, the air of a sweet spring morning, pure water to drink, food from the fertile soil, the companionship of clouds and wood thrushes, the radiance of your beautiful faces and for the first peoples of this place, the Anishinabek in whose territory we convene this morning. Gchi megwech for the song, for the high honor of an eagle feather. I am humbled by your generosity.
And Gchi Megwech to the Northland community for honoring me with this degree, I have spent much of my life trying to braid together two strands of knowledge, scientific ways of knowing the earth and the wisdom of indigenous knowledge in how we live in relationship to earth, so it feels just right to stand here with you today, in a college that shares that vision. For the unprecedented occasion that both commencement speakers this morning are Native women scientists.
I think that this honor makes me a Northland alum, just like you. So together we can be proud of this wonderful institution, dedicated to liberal arts in service to sustainability, educating for the world we need and more importantly for the needs of the world.
The only thing I can remember about my own college graduation is that it seemed to go on forever; I promise you I will not contribute to that for you. Although the great poet Billy Collins opened a recent commencement address by saying, your administration has charged me with the task of delaying the receipt of your diplomas for 15 minutes. But as a faculty member myself, I know the real reason for it-they just want to savor a few more minutes in your company.
In Anishinaabe ways, we think of time as moving not in a line, but in a circle. And I am especially honored to join you on this point of the circle of time, a momentous day where endings and beginnings meet. Such moments we know are bittersweet, celebrate both the joy of achievement and the nostalgia that is already in the air. These moments are times of re-orientation between looking inward and outward, so just as we do on any journey, look around you and take note of your landmarks, the compass you carry, your internal GPS—for the paths when Siri cannot guide you. The place where beginnings and endings meet is also a time of uncertainty and vulnerability, so be kind to one another.
Gratitude is something that on a day like this we might take for granted, so full are our hearts. But gratitude is so much more than a simple thank you. It is strong medicine. Giving thanks recognizes not only the gift, but the giver. It calls us into deep relationship, founded on the deep knowing that we are not alone in the world that our very existence relies on the gifts of others.
Commencement speeches are by their nature the time we are supposed to offer advice, but I suspect by now you’ve gotten plenty of it—whether asked for or not! But the one thing I know for sure is that gratitude and happiness walk hand in hand.
Appreciation of the gifts that surround us creates a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of enough-ness which is an antidote to the messages which drill into our spirits telling us we must have more. Practicing gratitude is a radical act in a consumption driven society.
Gratitude is most powerful because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back, to living in a way that the Earth will be grateful for us.
Graduation Day is often a time for gifts, of course and I’m told that the hottest trends in graduation gifts nationwide are watches, commemorative beer glasses, the “almost valedictorian” T shirts and the ever popular Mercedes. But I imagine at Northland, gifts run more toward kayaks, life jackets, binoculars, and certified organic bug repellent.
Celebrations such as today are often marked by gift giving (as if a college education, and lifelong love and support were not enough). But what I want to think of today, are not the gifts that the world brings to you, but the gifts you bring to the world.
In Anishinaabe traditions, the direction of gift giving on a day like this is reversed. It is the honored one, who gives the gifts, to celebrate his or her good fortune and to symbolically thank the community for the gifts of education, or achievement or honor that one has received. In this spirit I have here gifts of gratitude for the College. This exchange of gifts takes place in a community ceremony we call a giveaway, where presents are shared, often laid out on a beautiful blanket over the grass. In a small gathering, the gifts are usually lovingly made by hand. After the gifts have been shared, there is a dance, to the heartbeat of the drum, where we raise up the gifts and dance to honor the giver and the gifts. We dance in a circle, not in a line, remembering the pathway of reciprocity, knowing that for the word to stay in balance there is an ongoing exchange of gifts between people and the living world.
I don’t know the origin of the giveaway, but I think that we learned it from watching the plants. Among our people we say that the plants are our oldest teachers. They were here first and have had a long time to learn how to live in a good way. Where better to look for wisdom than among those who make food of air and light and give it all away?
Especially the berries who offer up their gifts all wrapped in red and blue. We may forget, but the language remembers. Our word for the giveaway minidewak means “they give from the heart.” At its center lives the word min. Min is a root word for gift, but it is also the word for berry. In the poetry of our language, might speaking of minidewak, remind us to be as the berries?
We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity; plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth.
Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can “remember to remember.” In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us. We forget at our peril. When we forget, the dances we’ll need will be for mourning. For the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers and the memory of snow.
For we know, that the natural world, is also at a place on the circle where beginning and endings meet. The endings of 200 species every day, already we feel nostalgia for lost habitats and loss of experiences we used to take for granted, like dipping a cup into a stream for a drink of pure water. We know that together, we are on the brink, teetering on a wobbly plank, a tipping point in the history of the planet.
When one of my favorite students graduated last spring, we had a long talk, of graduating as an environmental scientist in the Era of the Sixth Extinction, in a time of climate chaos, when we have the technological solutions, the clear science; we have everything we need to change the world except the political will to do it. We can’t just change lightbulbs, we have to change hearts and remember what we love too much to lose. As a lifelong environmentalist, who celebrated the very first Earth Day I wanted to apologize to her, that we hadn’t fixed things yet. Like I want to apologize to you.
But she took my hand, comforting me when I thought I should be comforting her. She reminded me that beginnings and endings meet in the same place. She said,“oh no, you don’t understand. I am so grateful to be alive and to be graduating in this precarious time, it is the best possible circumstance, because when everything is on the line, when we hover at the tipping point, I know that I can be the difference, together we can tip the balance, our acts have more meaning today than at any time in history. It is our moment.”
This is what the great philosopher Joanna Macy has called the Great Turning, the essential adventure of our time, shifting from the age of industrial growth and exploitation to the age of life-sustaining civilization. Her work and the work of countless others, yours included describe the accelerating momentum of the transition already in progress, in acts large and small, as humans reclaim an ancient way of knowing in which human life is aligned with ecological processes, not against them. The question is; will the circle turn in time to save us? That’s up to us.
What do we need to crank the wheel, to propel the Great Turning, the transformation of endings into beginnings, we need leaders and dreamers and gardeners and scientists and artists as counterweights to the forces that would throw it all away. We need educated people.
What does that mean to be an educated person? There are lots of definitions…… someone who spent years in school, someone who assiduously avoided school, therefore someone who is tolerant of contradiction! An educated person is a danger to dictators, a friend to liberty, the blossom of civilization, and open minded… someone who never stops learning, I found so many different perspectives that I just had to stop reading. Which I guess means I fail to qualify as an educated person. Maybe we just recognize them by the size of their student loans.
In Anishinaabe teachings we say that an educated person is one who knows what her gifts are, and how to use them for good in the world. Not GPA or letters after your name, but knowing your gift and how to use it. That makes your education different from anyone else’s, for we each carry different gifts. The beautiful handmade gifts of our lives.
In the teachings of my ancestors, responsibilities and gifts are understood as two sides of the same coin. The possession of a gift is coupled with a duty to use it for the benefit of all. A thrush is given the gift of song, and so has a responsibility to greet the day with music, which is in turn received as a gift to us as we watch the sky grow pink each morning. Salmon have the gift of travel, so they accept the duty of carrying food upriver. So when we ask ourselves, what is our responsibility, we are also asking “What is our gift?”
As human people, most recently evolved here, we lack the gifts of our companion species: of nitrogen fixation, pollination, and three-thousand-mile migrations under magnetic guidance. We can’t even photosynthesize. But we carry gifts of our own.
How do we reciprocate the gifts of the Earth? with gratitude, with ceremony, by paying attention, acts of practical reverence and land stewardship, in fierce defense of the places we love, in art, in science, in song, in gardens, in healing, in children, in ballots, in stories of the past and imagination for the future, in creative resistance, in how we spend our money and our precious lives, by raising our voices and raising a ruckus, by refusing to be complicit with the forces of ecological destruction.
When I close my eyes and listen for the giveaway drum song- I envision people waking for perhaps the first time, to the dazzling gifts of the world, just as they teeter on the cusp of undoing. Maybe just in time. Or maybe too late. Spread on the grass, green over brown, they’ll see at last the giveaway from Mother Earth, her gifts piled high. Blankets of moss, robes of feathers, baskets of corn and vials of healing herbs. Spotted trout, agate beaches, sand dunes. Thunderheads and snow drifts, cords of wood and herds of elk.
Tulips. Potatoes. Luna moths and snow geese. More than anything, I want to hear a great song of thanks rise on the wind. I think that song might save us. And then, as the drum begins, together we will all dance—wearing regalia in celebration of the living earth, a waving fringe of tall grass prairie, a whirl of butterfly shawls, with nodding plumes of egrets, jeweled with the glitter of a starlit night.
The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It is our turn. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth. Spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate act, the transcendent idea, the perfect tool. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. The beautiful, handmade gift that is you. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.
Dear young people, of strong hearts and open minds, I congratulate you on your splendid achievements and ask for blessings on your path.