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Wabanaki Basketmakers Want To Show That Harvesting Sweetgrass Can Be Sustainable

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
Gabriel and Gal Frey collecting sweetgrass

Before Europeans settled on the East Coast, the Wabanaki tribes had open access to all of Maine's natural resources, from eels to ash, and sweetgrass to salmon. 

Currently jurisdictional battles over important natural resources still simmer, but the Wabanaki nation, and a handful of other federally recognized nations around the country, are working toward harvest rights in some of the nation's most protected areas. A pilot project underway downeast could serve as a national model.

There are few places more challenging than a Maine marsh in the depths of July, which features humid, clinging air with the odor of rotten egg, plenty of places to disappear into the brackish muck and, of course, lots of mosquitos. But something very important has enticed generations of Wabanaki to places like this each summer.

“See this right here? This is solid, this is all sweetgrass right here. All of this...Behind you there's another batch, but over there? See...that's mixed in,” says Gal Frey.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public
Maine Public
The Freys are doing what no one else in the country is currently allowed to do: they're picking sweetgrass from the protected marshes of Acadia National Park.

To the untrained eye, the shaggy hummocks of grass all look the same, but to Passamaquoddy basket makers Gal Frey and her son Gabriel, the fragrant green strands of sweetgrass stand out from all the rest.

The Freys are doing what no one else in the country is currently allowed to do: they're picking sweetgrass from the protected marshes of Acadia National Park.

If this test project, which will likely wrap up after next year, proves to be sustainable, it would pave the way for Wabanaki harvest rights in the park. Initially, the rights would apply just for sweetgrass, which is important for ceremonies as well as basket making. But to get to this point has already taken more than 20 years — from initial discussions, to the writing of a framework rule in 2016, to the proving grounds at Bass Harbor Marsh today.

It's still just preliminary stuff, says Rebecca Cole-Will, Chief of Resource Management with Acadia National Park.

"We have to demonstrate that this kind of ongoing activity is not going to impair the resource,” says Cole-Will. “There is a very high bar for allowing or accommodating traditional gathering, based on the park service's mission and our regulations that say we will not allow any activity that could impair a natural resource.”

After all the research is compiled, an environmental assessment will need to be published, a government-to-government agreement negotiated, and a monitoring process created before any harvest permits could be issued. The park commissioner gets the final say.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell
Michelle Baumflek with U.S. Forest Service; Rebecca Cole-Will, Chief of Resource Management at Acadia National Park; and scientist Suzanne Greenlaw document the test harvest.

To the Freys, the federal process can at times seem like case of "overthinking."

“Sweetgrass is still here, and the Wabanaki people have been harvesting for thousands of years, right? So the evidence is there,” says Gabriel Frey. “But our dominant society says without quantifiable data, that's not true.”

“I want to come back here every year,” says Gal Frey. “And I already know what I need to do in order to ensure my part. So I get what I want, I will take care of it so it's going to be here next year. It's not that difficult to figure it out."

As the Freys choose which grass to pick — pliable, lush green, long — and which to bypass — old and spotty or too short or beaten down — they need to explain their every move to a pair of scientists.

"Yes, so we're just trying to get your assessment of coming back here,” says Suzanne Greenlaw, one of the lead scientists and a doctoral student at the University of Maine. “For example, you said there's spotting on here, this has gone by so where else would you choose...would you choose a location that would have less spotting at this point?” Greenlaw is a member of the Maliseet tribe. Part of her role is to make sure that the conventional science required by the federal government accurately reflects what the harvesters are saying and doing.

“So indigenous knowledge is a collective knowledge, sort of an action-oriented knowledge, where it's in the process of doing it, does this knowledge get understood?” says Greenlaw. “And the language people use to teach is not a scientific language — that doesn't mean it's not science. They're are different sort of ways to know things."

The science team measures and records each grass plot that gets harvested and painstakingly counts every single strand on each mound, noting size and length.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public
Maine Public
“It's also the idea of like — usually the people who are buying up land in Maine are from out of Maine, and sort of the culture that was here, even just among non-native people, just Mainers in general, is that everyone shares land,”

"Even though the scientific method hasn't changed, the way that we apply it and the knowledge that we privilege within that scientific method is exactly what we're trying to do differently in this particular project,” says Michelle Baumflek, who works for the US. Forest Service.

Baumflek is involved with this project and with efforts by the Cherokee to pursue harvest rights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She says traditional conservation thinking usually considers harvesting to be detrimental, but the Wabanaki study seems to be proving the opposite.

"Things that were harvested last year have not only grown back to the numbers they were, but they've increased dramatically,” says Baumflek.

One of the biggest challenges facing native tribes across the United States is shrinking access. The Freys say the problem is especially severe in prime real estate zones along the coast where the grass thrives.

“You know, our culture and our indigenous activities, our medicine gathering are all foreign ideas," says Gal Frey.

“It's also the idea of like — usually the people who are buying up land in Maine are from out of Maine, and sort of the culture that was here, even just among non-native people, just Mainers in general, is that everyone shares land,” says Gabe Frey. “Everyone has a different use for the land, and if — I mean, no one is 'using' a marsh right? But when somebody comes in from out of the state, there's not necessarily that communal feeling.”

And the National Park System itself, while preserving millions of acres of wilderness for more than 100 years, has also played a role in severing tribal access to resources. That’s something this process is designed to rectify, at least in part. So far, no tribe has achieved a harvest permit or reached a government-to-government agreement, but a handful of tribes in Arizona, Washington and North Carolina are working through the process.

Originally published August 22, 2018 5:18 p.m.