This article examines Indigenous stories that reveal how the land communicates to humans through medicinal plants. The intention is to address a blind spot in new materialist theory, which Zoe Todd has criticized for its lack of attention to Indigenous forms and practices of relational materialism. The main focus of this essay is Indigenous narratives about the sacred plant sweetgrass (known as (wihkaskwa in Cree; wiingaashk in Anishinaabemowin). Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s meditation Braiding Sweetgrass and Drew Hayden Taylor’s novel Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, and watching Jessie Short’s 2016 film Sweet Night, I argue that these artists portray sweetgrass as an intermediary between humans and the land, strengthening Indigenous cultural sovereignty and deepening human relationships by reminding people of their shared embodiment and their shared spiritual-territorial connection. The plant is revealed in these works as a teacher, operating through its scent, texture, and literal rootedness to teach humans about their own connectedness to particular living places.
By working at the level of sensation rather than linguistic signification, the sweetgrass is also shown to have an immediate and embodied effect upon the characters in these works. In particular, it offers itself as a gift, and as a conduit of love. I argue that the repeated image of the sweetgrass braid in these works is not exactly a metaphor, but is instead a profound conjoining of the earth and the human body, both submitted to the care of human hands. To braid the earth’s fragrant hair is to treat it in the most intimate way, as a family member or a beloved. It is this human activity of braiding that clarifies the kinship aspect of sweetgrass, showing us that it is not a thing, but a relation. The reciprocity of this relationship shows an Indigenous ethic of engagement with the living material world.