Tribes Unite in Defense of Culture and Forests

Tribes Unite in Defense of Culture and Forests


words by yessenia funes

photographs by sean davidson

In the Northeast, tribes are coming together to save the threatened black ash tree, a cultural treasure and ecological jewel, from a ravenous beetle.

Over the past 20 years, more than 100 million ash trees have died. Actually, they were killed. The emerald ash borer, an invasive insect from Asia whose name pays homage to its stunning holographic coloring, arrived in the U.S. (likely via imported wood) with an insatiable appetite for ash trees. Since at least 2002, the pest has devoured its way through the U.S. ash tree population. 


Ash trees make up the genus Fraxinus, which by some estimates includes up to 70 species: white ash, green ash, Oregon ash, pumpkin ash, and the list goes on. For northeastern Indigenous peoples and tribal nations, however, one ash species is of particular importance: black or brown ash (both names refer to the same tree).


Indigenous groups like the Wabanaki Nations of Maine and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York use the tree to weave baskets. Now, the dual threat from the emerald ash borer and the inescapable reality of climate change is pushing black ash to the brink of extinction. The metallic green beetle hasn’t yet decimated black ash in the Northeast the way it has farther west—but how long until it does? By then, will forests already be sick and ablaze from rising temperatures? Indigenous leaders aren’t waiting to find out.


Brown ash is more vulnerable to environmental changes than many other tree species, including other ash. The species requires specific moisture levels and nutrient-rich soils. It can grow in stagnant swamps and bogs that flood seasonally, but it thrives when flowing water can aerate the soil. These conditions give the tree its renowned flexibility, which allows basket weavers to break the wood into the thin strips they need for their work. But basket-quality wood is getting harder to come by—and for many Indigenous communities, losing brown ash is not an option.

A close-up of a beige and white striped basket.
One small, wide beige and black basket sits next to a taller green and beige basket on a white shelf in a gallery.

Jeremy Frey is the sort of artist who gives simple yet bold. His outfit is all black save for a gray flag on his shirt. In place of where the stars would be on an American flag sit the words “Made in Native America.” This confident touch translates to his work, too: Frey is a basket weaver from the Passamaquoddy Nation in Maine. 


However, his pieces don’t often look like baskets at all. Some are more reminiscent of long-necked vases. Others feel more like tabletop spaceships: A pointed pattern of teal and indigo give one of his baskets the chromatic feeling of something futuristic (even though it’s rooted in a millennia-old practice).


Frey has been weaving baskets for over 20 years—and his styles have evolved throughout that time. His mother taught him during a period when she was relearning basketry herself, passing along a tradition that has lived in Frey’s family for seven generations. The 44-year-old artist is the first to display his work at contemporary art institutions. His first solo show, “Out of the Woods,” featured 14 baskets in New York City’s Karma Gallery earlier this year.


“Sometimes, I think about what [the ancestors] would’ve thought about where I am today,” Frey said.


Though Frey creates what he calls “fancy baskets” designed to be decorative, his ancestors primarily wove utility baskets used to store food or transport products. Back then, baskets were akin to what Tupperware is now, Frey explained. It wasn’t until European colonization that a market arose for decorative basketry. The baskets became objects his ancestors could trade for clothing, sugar, or spices. 

Over the past 20 years, more than 100 million ash trees have died.

While his community still harvests black ash to weave baskets for fishing and hunting, Frey is focused on discovering new patterns and techniques. He’s dedicated to the creative element. That includes finding trees in the first place. He harvests black ash two to three times in the spring and fall. Only about one in every 100 ash trees he finds is suitable for basketry. 


Once he identifies a tree and cuts it down, the real work begins. First, the tree’s bark must be removed. Then, the tree has to be pounded down until its growth years start to separate. That’s what basket weavers need. The tree’s wood has to be split thinner and thinner so that it can be woven tightly in a basket. 


Frey isn’t sure how much longer the trees will be around for him to harvest.


“The emerald ash borer is killing the trees,” he said. “Every year, I put away a year’s worth of material because I know that there’s not going to be any more ash, not for my generation.”


Its loss would be profound. His people’s creation story stems from brown ash: After a cultural hero shot an arrow into the ash tree, the Passamaquoddy people came singing and dancing out of it. “How can you put that [impact] into words?” he said. 


Frey worries that today’s black ash baskets—his or of other artists—will be some of the last. His career is just starting to take off. Where would a world without black ash leave him?


“I’ve had 15 years to think about it,” Frey said, “and I still don’t have a clue.”

A blurry close up shot of a red and beige basket.
A close up of a red, beige, and black basket.


Scientists believe the emerald ash borer first arrived in the U.S. back in the 1990s. It wasn’t until 2002 that they actually discovered the pest in Michigan. Since then, state and federal leaders have tried to quell the infestation by enacting quarantines and import bans on firewood, but that hasn’t stopped the insect from slowly spreading. 


Emerald ash borers lay their eggs, about 40 to 70 per clutch, in the cracks of tree bark. After hatching, the larvae burrow and feed on the tissue just beneath the bark. Their monthslong residency leaves behind serpentine scars after which they emerge through D-shaped holes as newly minted adults. While a healthy brown ash tree can live some 200 to 300 years, infestation can kill a tree in two to six.


The loss of these trees isn’t devastating to only the cultures attached to them. There’s an ecological hit here, too. Black ash regulates water table levels, which synchronize with invertebrate and amphibian life cycles. They also tuck away carbon from the atmosphere—quite a bit because they are so long lived. As ash trees dwindle, faster-growing species with shorter lives are likely to replace them, explained Aaron Weiskittel, director of the University of Maine’s Center for Research and Sustainable Forests. These other trees may not grow as tall and wide as black ash, allowing more radiation to strike the soil. As a result, the soil might dry and lose productivity. 


To make matters worse, the dead, hollowed-out trunks left behind by the beetle can also fuel wildfires. Climate change’s rising temperatures and exacerbating droughts are making wildfires occur at higher and stronger rates. The Northeast is unlikely to be exempt from such impacts, especially if carbon pollution continues. As the ongoing Canadian wildfires have made clear, nowhere is safe.


“The extent and the pace at which these trees die [from emerald ash borer], you have a sudden explosion of a lot of dead trees and dry fuel,” Weiskittel said. “You could easily see a fire start there. Once a fire gets started, it can quickly spread.”


The loss of brown ash is objectively bad—for the forests, for Indigenous communities, and for everyone else.

The top of a white basket has a small circle attached.
The inside of a beige basket is colored in a purple and red pattern.

Compared to other parts of the U.S., Maine feels relatively untouched by the plague the beetle has wrought. Most tribal lands in the state have not yet been ravaged by the emerald ash borer. However, tribal leaders aren’t waiting until then to act. Leslie Benedict, an assistant director with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s environmental division, has been trying to protect black ash for the past 33 years. In his tribal territory in New York, the tree had been lost to agriculture. When he began his work, he was focused on bringing black ash back. Tribal members were traveling hundreds of miles to gather wood for the baskets. 


At the time, Benedict had no idea a new threat was emerging. No one did.


He was asking all sorts of questions about the species. What makes it grow well for baskets? How should seeds be collected and stored? How many trees exist already in New York? What makes them healthy? Back then, brown ash wasn’t as well-studied as other ash species with more industrial uses (like white ash). “We had to create a lot of information, and we had to learn more about it,” he said—from academics, state experts, and other tribes. “Ever since emerald ash borer became an issue, the wealth of knowledge about ash has grown exponentially,” said Benedict, who is also the black ash coordinator with the community organization Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment.

“If we lose black ash, it’s not just a tree we’ve lost. We’ve lost a cultural practice. We’ve lost a connection.”

Leslie Benedict
Assistant Director, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s environmental division

Indeed, Benedict’s work set a foundation for the next generation of Indigenous scientists. One of those following in Benedict’s footsteps is Tyler Everett, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources and citizen of Mi’kmaq Nation in Maine. His great-grandmother and great-grandfather wove baskets. So did his aunts and uncles. Much of his family would sell their baskets—the fancy types like Frey’s—in Portland, Maine.


“It’s a part of our story of how we’ve moved and been able to make ends meet,” Everett said. 


He’s now figuring out how to save the tree his family has relied on for generations. He’s worked closely with basketmakers and ash harvesters to absorb their knowledge. His research began by, first, taking inventory of the remaining trees and developing a protocol for tribal nations to take effective inventories moving forward. Now that these data exist, he’s looking at tribal-supported management: how can leaders stop the emerald ash borer before it’s too late?

A blurry off center shot of a black, beige, and green basket.
a close up shot of a green, black, and beige patterned basket.

Everett is a scientist, so he’s all about experimentation. In 2020, he released parasitoid wasps that are natural enemies of the emerald ash borer. The wasps lay their eggs inside the beetle’s egg or larvae, killing them before they can tear apart the trees. Other states have seen success with the wasps, which are the size of a period on a page. “They’re very minute, and they don’t sting,” Everett clarified. “But there’s always the risk of releasing a non-native insect.”


At not yet-infested sites, Everett has also cut down ash and non-ash trees alike to reduce their density. That harvesting creates gaps in the forest canopy to help recruit ash seedlings and foster the next generation of trees. Removing unhealthy ash trees may also slow the growth of emerald ash borer come bearing down in the future. Like Benedict, Everett has been collecting seeds, too. He hopes they can help with genetic research to solve the pest problem or, at the very least, aid in black ash regeneration should the time come. He’s opting for a multipronged approach to saving the trees. His research will wrap up by 2025, but he won’t know how effective some of these strategies may be for another 10 to 15 years. 


Efforts to pull the brown ash tree back from the edge of extinction won’t be easy—and they may very well fail. Frey doesn’t believe he’ll have access to the ash for long. Weiskittel predicts the species may be extinct in some 50 years. As for Benedict, he knows the tree won’t always be as plentiful soon, but he won’t accept defeat just yet.


“If we lose black ash, it’s not just a tree we’ve lost,” he said. “We’ve lost a cultural practice. We’ve lost a connection.”


To nurture that connection, tribal nations across the Northeast will gather in July to share knowledge about black ash basket making for the first time in 20 years. At that first and only gathering decades ago, tribes educated their non-Indigenous partners. Back then, state agencies didn’t even know how to differentiate between black ash and green ash. State partners didn’t understand the Indigenous values that guided tree harvesting and basket making. 


Now, they do. Now, the White House has released a first-of-its-kind resource for federal agencies on Indigenous knowledge. Now, the United Nations has identified Indigenous knowledge as a key tool against the climate crisis. 


This time, tribal leaders can focus on one another. They can share lessons to keep their cultural treasures alive. They can exchange knowledge in the hopes of preserving their cherished black ash baskets. After all, their cultures have overcome much worse than an insect.


“Our Indigenous and Native American societies are resilient,” Benedict said. “We’re here today only because we are resilient.”

A close up shot of a red and blue patterned basket.
A tall red, black, and blue basket stands on top of a white shelf in a gallery.

Basket Artistry Jeremy Frey

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