‘Natives fear’: invasive beetle found in Cumberland County threatens Wabanaki culture


An invasive beetle threatens more than the ash trees in Maine – it also harms native Wabanaki culture. Now the native people, Maine Audubon in Falmouth and Portland Public School students are working together in a battle to stop the spread of the insect.

The emerald ash borer has been detected in communities in Cumberland County including Bridgton, Gorham, Portland, Saco, South Portland and Westbrook. The insect was recently found at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, the northernmost area where the pest was found in Cumberland County.

The insect destroys ash trees, including black ash, known to Wabanakis as brown ash.

Passamaquoddy basket maker Frances Soctomah used brown ash and sweet grass in this creation. Contribution / Abbot Museum

Brown ash is important to the Wabanaki for its part in the history of their creation and in their basket-making tradition, said Suzanne Greenlaw, a citizen of the Houlton Maliseet Indian Band, one of the four Wabanaki tribes. When trees are threatened, the Wabanaki basketry equipment is threatened.

“The values ​​associated with brown ash and basketry run pretty deep,” said Greenlaw, a basket maker and doctoral student at the University of Maine who worked with Portland public schools to raise awareness of the threat.

According to creation legend Wabanaki, the hero Gluskabe shot an arrow at a brown ash, and “out of the tree came the people.” Due to the role of the tree in the history of Wabanaki, the sides of the brown ash are used in the making of baskets.

“(The making of baskets) has become a form of assimilation resistance over the years,” Greenlaw said. “The Four Nations used basketry as a source of income when there was forced assimilation. “

While the impact of the emerald ash borer on Wabanaki has been minimal so far, “the threat is quite significant and its continued spread in the state will play out over the next decade,” said Darren Ranco , president of UMaine’s Native American programs and a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, another Wabanaki tribe.

An ash tree damaged by the emerald ash borer in Madawaska. Contributed

The Wabanaki will be consulted on how best to mitigate the emerald ash borer in Maine, under an agreement between the Wabanaki and the USDA, Ranco said.

In Portland, students are made aware of the impact of the emerald ash borer on the Wabanaki.

Schools have previously collaborated with Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry in a study that found the driller at Gilsland Farm.

Next year, Portland’s fifth-grade life sciences unit will participate in a hands-on unit with Maine Audubon on the emerald ash borer, said STEM coordinator Brooke Teller.

In their native Asia, the emerald ash borer is held in check by predators like parasitic wasps. In North America, they do not have such predators.

Forest Service entomologist Colleen Teerling said the borer’s spread in Maine “is not something we can ever eradicate.”

“Slowing the spread reduces ecological devastation so that there is no devastation throughout the region. It also saves us time to find new solutions to this problem. To do this, we are monitoring where the emerald ash borer is, we are putting in place protective measures to slow the pace, such as quarantine and the release of biological control, which is a long-term solution to this problem ”, Teerling said.

“I hope all of this work shows what kind of partnership can happen when natives are centered and their voices are heard,” said Greenlaw. “The natives are afraid. We feel the fear of knowing how to pass on a tradition, when there may not be a tradition to pass on. “

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