The emerald ash borer is an invasive beetle that has killed millions of trees in the Great Lakes region. As if that weren’t bad enough, the borer is now starting to threaten Native American customs. For them, the ash trees are more than just landscaping. They’re also used for making traditional ash baskets, canoe paddles, and medicine. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has the story:
The emerald ash borer is an invasive beetle that’s killed millions of trees in the Great Lakes region. As if that weren’t bad enough, the borer is now starting to threaten Native American customs. For them, the ash trees are more than just landscaping. They’re also used for making traditional ash baskets, canoe paddles, and medicine. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has the story:
When I first saw Walpole Island, it was green and misty, out in the middle of the St. Clair River.
I had to take a ferry to get there. Walpole Island sits between the U.S. and Canada, but it doesn’t really belong to either one. It’s owned by the tribes. And they’ve lived there for close to six-thousand years. The island’s full of beautiful old trees, and has a lot of native plants and animals. Quite a few of which are rare.
After the ferry ride, it’s not too far to the Walpole Island Heritage Center. Inside, Kennon Johnson shows off the collection of baskets at the center. He’s the supervisor of the island’s Resource Protection Program.
“These would’ve been working baskets, this would’ve been used for collecting berries, mushrooms, all sort of things, and then some would’ve been for storage, and that’s typically your smaller ones.”
These baskets aren’t just museum pieces. People still make them and sell them. The stronger ones carry food and laundry, and the brightly colored ones are for gifts.
Reta Sands still makes the baskets. She’s a tribal elder. She learned basket making from her grandmother. The wood to make the baskets came from ash trees.
“My grandmother, when she needed money, that’s the time she decided she would go into the bush and chip, the ash trees that were there. She took a chunk out of the tree and looked at it and some way, somehow, she figured out which ones were good, which ones were the best ones to make whatever kind of baskets she was going to make.”
But now the basket-making tradition might be in trouble. The black ash trees in the Great Lakes region are being attacked by the emerald ash borer. The ash borer is an invasive pest that has shown up within the past decade. And it’s spreading like wildfire.
The insect hasn’t invaded Walpole Island yet, but the island is near some infested spots in Michigan and Canada. Kennon Johnson is already thinking about the possible effects of the bugs, when they arrive on the island.
“So we’re talking about some pretty scary issues here if we do get emerald ash borer, if it does what they say it does, if it’s going to wipe out all the ash trees five, ten years down the road, we’re looking at some more scary issues in that we’re going to be culturally impacted.”
Kennon says the tribes don’t know if they’ll have to end their tradition of making the baskets, or if they’ll be able to find a way to fight off the pest. Controlling the ash borer is a work in progress. There hasn’t been enough research on the pest and no one really knows how to get rid of it.
The native people want the freedom to try some of their own solutions on their land—not just at Walpole Island, but other places the tribes manage the forest. Nick Reo is trying to help the tribes be part of the decision making. He’s the American Indian Liason for Michigan State University’s Extension program.
“Basically tribes have been left out of the process, and we’re used to that, I mean that’s the way things happen. People tend to work around us not with us, and I don’t think I’m overstating that. So, I’m trying to get us to the table. Somebody has to push the issue. That’s not just me, but I could be one of the people that’s pushing the issue.
Where the progress is really happening is within the tribal communities. Those are the people who are really going to make a difference.”
Reo says the native communities have centuries of experience with the trees. He says they know the ashes better than anyone else, and he feels someone ought to take advantage of that expertise.
“We have sophisticated natural resource and environmental departments in our tribal communities, we have cultural departments and historic preservation departments, we have basket makers and traditional folks who are going to be the champions, hopefully, in helping to factor in to figuring out solutions for this problem.”
For now, the tribes are waiting, and watching to see the extent of the damage as the emerald ash borer moves through the region. They’re brainstorming some of the ways they might fight the pest as the invasion gets worse.
For the GLRC, I’m Melissa Ingells.