WATERVILLE — Brown ash trees are critically endangered throughout Maine. The emerald ash borer, a parasitic beetle that has already killed ash trees across the United States, was first detected in Maine in May 2018 – several years before it was anticipated. Faced with these ongoing threats, the Wabanaki have been leading the defense of brown ash trees in Maine.

Native to wetlands but often planted in New England towns, brown ash trees play a critical role in basket-weaving practices, particularly to those of the Wabanaki. We met recently with Jennifer Neptune, a member of the Penobscot Nation, director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers’ Alliance and a co-curator of an upcoming art exhibition at Colby College, to learn more about the brown ash tree’s importance to her as well as to the tribe and organizations of which she is a member.

The use of brown ash wood is integral to indigenous basket-weaving traditions. Not only does the wood possess flexibility and strength, but the brown ash is also considered to be the source of life in Wabanaki creation stories, central to Wabanaki culture. Brown ash tree endangerment jeopardizes the livelihoods of basketmakers and cultural practices of Wabanaki peoples.

Brown ash trees are found throughout Maine. Take a moment to notice the trees in your community and seek out some Indigenous baskets woven from brown ash. The basketmakers group has a tent at the Common Ground fair in Unity every September.

Additionally, an exhibition focused on Wabanaki contemporary art – “Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry” – is slated to open July 20 at Colby. Co-curated by Jennifer Neptune, it is free and open to the public. Another exhibit, “Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art,” is on view at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

When the beetle was first discovered near Detroit in 2002, the Penobscot Nation began working with Akwesasne Mohawk and Great Lakes tribes to begin saving seeds. Initially, those involved hoped that the emerald ash borer would quickly die out once they consumed all the ash trees in their range.

Simultaneously documenting basketmaking practices and the traditional processes of finding brown ash trees suitable for this purpose, Indigenous basketmakers hoped that even if the art skipped a generation, the art form would re-emerge with a new, healthy generation of brown ash trees.

Unfortunately, the emerald ash borer is difficult to eradicate once it has infested an area, and seed banks will not be enough to prevent the death of brown ash trees. To address this, the Penobscot Nation encouraged state government to pass legislation preventing the movement of infested firewood, and in 2010, the Legislature made it illegal to move firewood across state lines.

However, legislation has not been sufficient to stop the spread of the emerald ash borer, so the Wabanaki and the basketmakers alliance have worked to research methods that can combat the bug more directly. University of Maine researchers have been working with Indigenous peoples to find ways to use aspects of the emerald ash borer’s native ecosystems in Siberia and northern China that would make them less of a threat here in Maine.

One possibility is introducing a non-stinging Chinese wasp whose natural prey is the emerald ash borer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released this wasp in Michigan to determine its feasibility. Another option is to splice brown ash trees with DNA from trees growing in Siberia and China that are already resistant to the emerald ash borer.

However, we may not need to look further than Maine ecosystems for a solution. Researchers have been investigating how native woodpeckers are changing their behavior to begin eating the emerald ash borer themselves. Maine Forest Service entomologists are also working with non-stinging native wasps to provide early detection of the emerald ash borer.

Individuals can take steps to limit the spread of emerald ash borer-infected wood. Making a conscious effort not to transport firewood across state borders or between campsites can greatly reduce the spread of invasive species. Institutional changes might include stricter enforcement of wood transport laws and more thorough investigations of wood sources from vendors. All Mainers can support these broader changes by bringing them up with their municipal and state officials.

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