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Plant Kin

Plant Kin
A Multispecies Ethnography in Indigenous Brazil

Using sensory ethnobotany to understand people-plant relationships and gardening practices in the Brazilian Cerrado, this multispecies ethnography presents a non-Western approach to environmental conservation and resilience.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment

May 2019
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328 pages | 6 x 9 | 52 color and 6 b&w photos, 2 maps, 5 charts/graphs |

The Indigenous Canela inhabit a vibrant multispecies community of nearly 3,000 people and over 300 types of cultivated and wild plants living together in Maranhão State in the Brazilian Cerrado (savannah), a biome threatened with deforestation and climate change. In the face of these environmental threats, Canela women and men work to maintain riverbank and forest gardens and care for their growing crops, whom they consider to be, literally, children. This nurturing, loving relationship between people and plants—which offers a thought-provoking model for supporting multispecies survival and well-being throughout the world—is the focus of Plant Kin.

Theresa L. Miller shows how kinship develops between Canela people and plants through intimate, multi-sensory, and embodied relationships. Using an approach she calls “sensory ethnobotany,” Miller explores the Canela bio-sociocultural life-world, including Canela landscape aesthetics, ethnobotanical classification, mythical storytelling, historical and modern-day gardening practices, transmission of ecological knowledge through an education of affection for plant kin, shamanic engagements with plant friends and lovers, and myriad other human-nonhuman experiences. This multispecies ethnography reveals the transformations of Canela human-environment and human-plant engagements over the past two centuries and envisions possible futures for this Indigenous multispecies community as it reckons with the rapid environmental and climatic changes facing the Brazilian Cerrado as the Anthropocene epoch unfolds.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Introduction: Toward a Sensory Ethnobotany in the Anthropocene
    • Approaching People and Plants in the Anthropocene
    • Approaching Sensory Ethnobotany
    • Introducing the Canela People
    • Introducing the Plant Kin
    • Following the Pathways of This Book
  • 1. Tracing Indigenous Landscape Aesthetics in the Changing Cerrado
    • Tracing a Canela Aesthetics of Land
    • Understanding the Canela Bio-Sociocultural Life-World
    • Understanding the Changing Cerrado
    • Approaching the Canela Territorial Landscape
    • Becoming Resilient: Living with and Valuing the Land
  • 2. Loving Gardens: Human–Environment Engagements in Past and Present--
    • Understanding Indigenous Landscape Transformations
    • Gardening: A Brief History, 1814–Present
    • Loving Forest and Riverbank Gardens in the Twenty-First Century
    • Learning from Star-Woman: Origins of Horticulture and Biodiversity Maintenance
    • Gardening as Resistance
  • 3. Educating Affection: Becoming Gardener Parents
    • Parenting Plants: Skills, Practice, Process
    • Learning, Knowing, and Feeling with Plants
    • Understanding Gendered Multispecies Bodies
    • Caretaking of Plant Children: The Experts
    • Becoming Strong, Becoming Happy, Becoming Well
    • Making and Growing with Plant Kin
  • 4. Naming Plant Children: Ethnobotanical Classification as Childcare
    • Categorizing Plants: Sensory Pleasures
    • Noticing, Naming, Sorting, and Saving
    • Expanding Multispecies Families
    • Writing: Plant Childcare in the Twenty-First Century
    • Multispecies Loving, Open Taxonomies, and Living Lists
  • 5. Becoming a Shaman with Plants: Friendship, Seduction, and Mediating Danger
    • Talking with Plants
    • Becoming a Shaman: Engagements with Nonhumans
    • Shamanic Caring
    • Shamanic Mediating: Dangers in the Gardens
    • Becoming Friends to Plants in Canela Scalar Animism
  • Conclusion: Exploring Futures for People and Plants in the Twenty-First Century
    • Advocating for Sensory Ethnobotany in Multispecies Futures
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendices
    • Appendix A: Living Lists of Canela Cultivated Crops
    • Appendix B: Living Lists of Canela Native Plants in Savannah, Chapada, and Riverbank
    • Appendix C: Star-Woman (Caxêtikwỳj) Mythic Story
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Chicago, Illinois

Miller is an anthropologist working on environmental and social justice issues. She has worked at the Field Museum and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and is currently a Researcher at FrameWorks Institute in Washington, DC.


“Fascinating...Plant Kin offers a glimmer of hope in the Anthropocene of the possibilities of alternative and sustainable engagements with plants and their ecologies.”

“Theresa Miller presents a thoughtful portrayal of shifting ideas about the human place both in the world and in relation to plants in our era of changing climate...Each chapter on its own could be read as a unique contribution; taken collectively, they convey what she calls a sensory ethnobotany perspective that is interdisciplinary in scope...Plant Kin pays careful attention to what Canela indigenous people say and do in order to survive in a changing world that has long seen both the people and their places as sacrifice zones to be scoured for resources to feed global wealth.”
American Ethnologist

“[Plant Kin] contributes a thorough investigation of traditional ecological knowledge in a specific community and provides an in-depth example of the sociocultural processes that promote agrobiodiversity maintenance among a particular group and key group members. As such, it is a great resource for students of ethnobotany and related fields interested in relationships between cultural and biological diversity.”
Economic Botany

Plant Kin is a rigorously researched and carefully construed multispecies ethnography that focuses on the Indigenous Canela of the Brazilian Cerrado or savanna environment...Overall, the book is well-written and well-paced. The use of qualitative ethnographic material and testimonies from interlocutors interspersed with the author’s own prose make for a lively and captivating read.”
Journal of Latin American Geography

“[Plant Kin's] introduction, five chapters, and short conclusion are rich with ethnographic examples, highlighting resilience, multisensory care and multispecies relationships...In Plant Kin, Miller provides a well-written would interest students and scholars in anthropology, ethnobotany, environmental studies, Indigenous studies, and Latin American studies.”
Environment and Society

“A well-crafted, thoroughly researched account that speaks to a wide set of topics linked to global climate change. In the Canela, Miller sees an example of 'the work of caring for multispecies kin' that both fleshes out earlier theorizing and anticipates a fulsome recognition of biosocial engagements as constitutive of culture, in the broadest sense. By focusing on the 'sensory ethnobotany' practiced by the Canela, and letting this lifeway and worldview permeate her account, she develops a distinctive ethnographic approach that should have the book circulating in classrooms and seminars where ethnographic methods and theories are evaluated and inculcated.”
John Hartigan, University of Texas, author of Care of the Species: Races of Corn and the Science of Plant Biodiversity

“A fascinating study that breaks new ground in the study of non-Western relations between plants and people. Miller’s extensive field research and the indigenous narratives she presents offer an unparalleled view of women’s relations with plants, and she shows the implications of a uniquely Canela conception of kinship that is not limited to humanity. This is powerful material, well researched and well supported. The writing is superb. A brilliant book that deserves to be widely read.”
Beth Conklin, Vanderbilt University, author of Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society


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