Brown Ash Endangerment and Indigenous Solutions

Brown ash trees, also known as black ash, are critically endangered throughout the state of Maine. The emerald ash borer (EAB), a parasitic beetle that has already killed ash trees across the United States, was first detected in Maine last May—several years before it was anticipated. Faced with these ongoing threats, the Wabanaki (Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes) have been leading the defense of brown ash trees in Maine. The works of contemporary Wabanaki basketmakers will be on display in the upcoming show Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry at the Colby Museum of Art from July 20, 2019 through January 12, 2020. When considering these works in the context of the spread of the EAB, we can view them both as products of innovative artists commenting on centuries of tradition as well as representations of art forms that will soon be forced to change drastically due to the eradication of a key material.

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 with Jennifer Neptune, a member of the Penobscot Nation, director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers’ Alliance (MIBA), and cocurator of Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, to learn more about the importance of the brown ash to her as well as to the tribe and the organizations of which she is a member. She told us that the use of brown ash wood is integral to indigenous basket weaving. 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. With the brown ash tree under the threat of local and global extinction, the livelihoods of basketmakers and the cultural practices of Wabanaki peoples are endangered.

The act of basket weaving brings the artist close to the brown ash. Unlike with other forms of art, many basketmakers personally select the trees they work with and process the wood themselves. The sudden loss of brown ash trees impacts no one more than these weavers. Jeremy Frey, an award-winning Passamaquoddy basketmaker whose work is featured in the exhibition, discussed this relationship in an interview in the accompanying catalog. “I’m trying to work with the material of the ash tree as best as I possibly can in order to respect what’s left of it,” he says. “It’s almost like I have a responsibility to these trees. And for every tree I harvest to make a basket, I harvest another one and store it.” Many basketmakers have a similar approach to brown ash endangerment, which is one of the reasons we see such an immediate and powerful response from Wabanaki basketmaking communities.

Frey continues: “Each tree has a value that’s almost priceless because there’s a cultural dimension too. It’s like I have a relationship with the tree. I think that one of the best things I’ve done in my career is harvest my own material.” This connection between artist and material is threatened with the arrival of the EAB.

Artist Jeremy Frey in his studio working on Color in Winter (2019), a commission that will be featured in Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry.

When the beetle was first discovered near Detroit, Michigan, in 2002, the Penobscot Nation began working with Akwesasne Mohawk and Great Lakes tribes to begin saving seeds. Initially, those involved hoped that the EAB would quickly die out once the insects consumed all the ash trees in their range. Simultaneously documenting basketmaking practices and the tradition of finding brown ash trees suitable for this purpose, indigenous basketmakers hoped that even if their art skipped a generation, the art form would reemerge with a new, healthy generation of brown ash trees. Unfortunately, the EAB 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 the Maine government to pass legislation preventing the movement of EAB-infested firewood, and in 2010, the Maine legislature made it illegal to move firewood across state lines.

However, legislation has not been sufficient to stop the spread of the EAB, so the Wabanaki and MIBA have worked to research methods that can combat the EAB more directly. University of Maine Orono researchers have been working with indigenous peoples to find ways to use aspects of the EAB’s native ecosystems in Siberia and Northern China that would make the beetles less of a threat here in Maine. One possibility is introducing a nonstinging Chinese wasp, Tetrastichus planipennisi, whose natural prey is the EAB. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) 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 EAB. While these options are promising, it’s also possible to look within Maine’s own ecosystems for a solution to the EAB spread. Recent research has been investigating the ways native woodpeckers have changed their behavior and begun eating the EAB. Maine Forest Service entomologists are also working with nonstinging native wasps to provide early detection of the EAB.

According to the Maine Forestry Service, individuals can take steps to limit the spread of EAB-infected wood. For example, 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 politicians.

Brown ash trees are found throughout Maine. While some individuals view these trees passively, the Wabanaki rely on the brown ash both spiritually and economically as a way of life. Readers can also support the livelihoods of the Wabanaki by engaging with art exhibitions or purchasing brown ash baskets. MIBA has a tent with baskets for purchase at the Common Ground fair in Unity, Maine, which is held every September. Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry will be an important opportunity to learn about contemporary Wabanaki art and view some of the finest examples of brown ash baskets in Maine. Another exhibit, Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art, is currently taking place at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. There are also indigenous museums, such as the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island, where brown ash baskets are featured alongside other masterpieces of Native American art.

Sarah Sockbeson, Penobscot Ask Basket, 2011. Brown ash, sweetgrass, antler, 5 1/4 x 1/8 in. (13.3 x 15.6 cm). Colby Museum purchase from the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2011.099.