To acquire wisdom, one must observe

2024 Richman Fellowship awarded to Robin Wall Kimmerer

On Feb. 28, 2024, Richman Fellow, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer was presented with this year’s Richman Fellowship. During this presentation, Kimmerer spoke in the Levin Ballroom about humans’ way of viewing the world, how we can make real progress on ecological restoration efforts and more.


The Richman Distinguished Fellowship in Public Life, created by Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her family, honors individuals who are exceptionally active in public life and whose contributions have “had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for all citizens to realize and share in the benefits of this nation.” Recent recipients of the award include journalist Martin Baron, climate scientist Peter Frumhoff and actor Anna Deavere Smith.


Kimmerer, noted as being a “celebrated ecologist, educator and author,” is a a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and the founder/current director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, an organization at SUNY ESF that aims to amplify diversity in the scientific community and integrate traditional ecological knowledge in education. She is also the author of “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” and free copies of which were available at her recent speech.


During her talk on Wednesday, Kimmerer spoke on how there are “four ways of knowing the world”: body, mind, spirit and emotion. She noted that indigenous knowledge values each of these aspects equally, while western science only values half. She added that while western science is a powerful subset of these ways of knowing, a “two-eyed” view of the world values all aspects of the ways we can perceive the world.


Kimmerer continued, saying that the Earth asks of us to “raise good children, raise a garden and raise a ruckus when you need to.” Now, she said, it is time to take action and properly restore our planet. Our work as restoration ecologists, Kimmerer said, is restoring the damage that we’ve done to the world. She called this work “joyful,” but noted that we can’t just “make the Earth look green.” To truly restore, we have to make ecosystems work and ensure that we honor nature.


Speaking more specifically on restoration ecology, Kimmerer feels that the way that we restore land is very heavily dependent on what we think land is. She noted that if we view land as simply a provider of ecosystem services, we’re liable to restore it in one way. But, if we view it as a provider of home and identity for people in addition to a provider of ecosystem services, we’re more likely to restore it in a more holistic manner. 


The land isn’t the only thing that’s broken, she asserts; it’s also our relationship with it. That’s why Kimmerer advocates for a new kind of ecological restoration and the returning of land to indigenous groups. On the new kind of ecological restoration, Kimmerer said that we need “re-story-ation:” an opportunity to tell a new story about our relationship with the land. Human exceptionalism (the view that humans are different from all other organisms), she argues, is a profound differentiation of the rest of the world. She hopes that, through the use of more inclusive vocabulary and pronoun usage, we can edge towards a “kin-centric” model that allows us to connect more deeply with the planet. On the returning of land to indigenous groups, a process sometimes referred to as “Land Back,” Kimmerer feels that utilizing and spotlighting the value inherent in traditional ecological knowledge held by indigenous peoples will lead to improved conservation outcomes.


Kimmerer also spoke about our need for a “symbiosis” between different approaches in science, saying that if we work to combine traditional ecological knowledge and the cutting edge of western science, the field of ecological restoration can progress most quickly.


Kimmerer’s time on campus continued through class visits to assorted Biology, Environmental Studies, English and Legal Studies classes on Feb. 29. She held additional class visits earlier on Feb. 28 in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall, too.

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