An invasive beetle is threatening more than just Maine’s ash trees – it is also harming the Wabanaki native culture. Now, Indigenous people, Maine Audubon in Falmouth and Portland Public Schools students are working together in a battle to stop the insect’s spread.

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

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

Passamaquoddy basketmaker Frances Soctomah used brown ash and sweet grass in this creation. Contributed / Abbe Museum

Brown ash is significant to the Wabanaki for its part in their creation story and in their tradition of basket making, said Suzanne Greenlaw, a citizen of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, one of four Wabanaki tribes. When the trees are threatened, the Wabanakis’ basket-making material is threatened.

“The values associated with brown ash and basket making are quite deep,”  said Greenlaw, a basket maker and doctoral student at the University of Maine who has been working with Portland Public Schools to raise awareness about the threat.

According to the Wabanaki creation legend, the hero Gluskabe shot an arrow into a brown ash tree, and “out of the tree came the people.” Because of the tree’s role in Wabanaki history, splints from the brown ash are used in basket making.

“(Basket making) became a form of resistance to assimilation over the years,” Greenlaw said. “The Four Nations used basket making as a source of income when there was forced assimilation.”

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

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

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

In Portland, students are being educated on the ash borer’s impact on the Wabanaki.

The schools have already collaborated with Maine Audubon and Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry in a study that found the borer at Gilsland Farm.

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

In their native Asia, emerald ash borers are kept in check by predators like parasitic wasps. In North America, they have no such predators.

Forest Service Entomologist Colleen Teerling said the spread of the borer in Maine “is not something we’re ever going to be able to eradicate.”

“Slowing the spread reduces the ecological devastation so there’s not devastation all across the region. It also buys us time to find new solutions for this problem. How we do this is we track where emerald ash borer is, we put safeguards in place to slow the pace, like quarantine, and releasing biological control, which is a long-term solution to this problem,” Teerling said.

“I hope all of this work shows what kind of partnerships can happen when native people are centered and their voices are heard,” Greenlaw said. “Native people are scared. We feel the fear of how to pass on a tradition, when there may not be a tradition to pass on.”

Comments are not available on this story.