Gathering sweet grass by Wabanakis not just about harvesting plants

Bass Harbor Marsh

BASS HARBOR, Dec. 12, 2020 – The Wabanaki peoples had been harvesting sweet grass from the marshes here for millennia, until about a century ago when the National Park Service made it illegal for anyone to take vegetation out of the parks even though rituals and cultural practices dependent on the plants had been handed down for generations.

“Sweetgrass is part of creation narratives, and figures prominently in fiber arts and ceremonies,” wrote Amanda Marie Ellis in a paper for the University of Maine in 2016, the same year the Park Service began to reconsider its restriction on plant harvesting by indigenous peoples. Sweetgrass is also used to make Wabanaki baskets. “Wabanaki basketry traditions are an important part of cultural heritage, sovereignty, and economic survival,” she wrote.

Since then, several parks have granted indigenous people harvesting permits, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which now allows Cherokee Indians to gather Sochan, a relative of the sunflower.

The Wabanakis are still on just a research permit, but the group of 15 indigenous persons who are participating in an experiment to allow native harvesting of plants in Acadia already are feeling “a level of comfort” with the framework and funding of the project, said forestry experts helping the tests in Acadia.

Michelle Baumfleck, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the experiment “has mobilized indigenous people to engage” in the process. A legal expert on the cross section of indigenous and traditional intellectual property, NYU professor Jane Anderson, has been recruited to develop protocols to guide future interactions.

“The fact that they hired a lawyer to look into their interest makes them feel protected and valued,” said Baumfleck of the Wabanaki participants.

Baumfleck and Susanne Greenlaw, a forestry scientist at UMaine, must now take the harvest data and put it on paper which will form the basis for an environmental assessment on the effects of the harvesting. But so far, Baumfleck said the results have been “quite positive.”

They both gave a shoutout to Rebecca Cole-Will, chief of resource management at Acadia National Park, for her support and positive guidance. While the process is long, Greenlaw said they are aiming for more than just a single publication on sweet grass permitting. The “participatory process will lead to understanding equity in science, how to engage native people who are harvesting and gathering” and to ensure stakeholders have a long-term commitment to the principles of native harvesting.

Gabriel and Gal Frey collecting sweetgrass

In 2018, Maine Public Radio featured Gal Frey and her son Gabriel collecting sweetgrass here, doing something no one else were allowed to do.

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

“I want to come back here every year,” said 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.”

A complicating factor on MDI is the growing number of abutting private land. Some native gatherers crossing private land have been met with hostility and threats. This has prompted suggestions of “variations of owner agreements” to allow for “cultural easements.”

It would not be the first time the Wabanaki tribes have had to negotiate access and to fend off unwelcoming scourges.

In the early 17th century, 90 percent of the Wabanaki died from transplanted diseases, including smallpox, cholera and influenza, and conflicts with English, French and Dutch explorers.

“Having lost most of their relatives and neighbors, Wabanaki survivors joined other decimated
groups and restructured their social lives,” according to “Asticou Island Domain,” an ethnographic study done for the National Park Service. “Their existence was made all the more complicated because of fur trade competition and the colonial scramble for empire.”

Given that hardened history, the collecting of sweet grass sounds pretty benign.

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