Federal regulations prohibit the removal of any plants from National Park Service (NPS) lands. But a change adopted in 2016 allows an exception for members of federally recognized Indian tribes who want to gather plants for traditional purposes, so long as that activity does not have “a significant adverse impact on park resources or values.”
Making baskets with sweetgrass and other natural materials is a centuries-old tradition among members of the Penobscot nation and the Maliseet, Micmac and Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine, known collectively as the Wabanaki people.
“Sweetgrass is a coastal resource, and the tribes are increasingly having difficulty accessing sweetgrass stands along the shore,” said Rebecca Cole-Will, Acadia’s chief of resource management. “Some of the reason is that so much of the coast has become private property. Also, a lot of the salt marshes along the coast of Maine are seeing rapid environmental change.”
Accessing sweetgrass stands can be not only difficult, but dangerous, said Suzanne Greenlaw, a member of the Maliseet tribe who is working with Cole-Will to explore the possibility of harvesting in Acadia.
“People report that they’re no longer able to go to some places they’ve gone for generations,” she said. “These are all privately held lands. And if the landowner changes, the attitude might change and our access to that sweetgrass stand is no longer there.
“People have reported being threatened by landowners with dogs or a gun or being told they are ruining the sweetgrass population.”
Greenlaw said that in some cases, the sweetgrass isn’t even on the property of the landowner who objects to the harvesting.
“But you have to go across their land to get to where the sweetgrass is,” she said. “There’s a general shift in the Maine open land tradition. It’s not as open as it used to be.”
Greenlaw is a doctoral candidate in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine. She and Cole-Will are leading a research project to support an application to the NPS for permission to harvest sweetgrass in Acadia.
One facet of the research is a study of the effects of harvesting on sweetgrass stands. Last year, one-meter squares were plotted where sweetgrass was gathered.
“We counted the stems they picked as well as the ones that were left,” Greenlaw said. “”We’ll come back next year and keep counting the stems to see how that plot responds to harvesting.
“Wabanaki people believe that the more you pick a sweetgrass stand, the healthier it is, the more it will come back,” she continued.
Greenlaw’s research is intended to determine scientifically whether that is the case.
Another aspect of the research aims to better understand and document the traditional harvesting of sweetgrass.
“We’re working with gatherers to learn things like when is the best time to gather, where the best stands might be and how gathering is done in a way that is sustainable,” Cole-Will said. “All of those criteria are part of the management planning the park would need to do in order to enter into [sweetgrass] gathering agreements with the tribes.
“It’s a long process,” she continued. “It requires the development of an environmental assessment. We have to demonstrate scientifically that there wouldn’t be negative environmental consequences of this traditional activity.”
Greenlaw said it is especially important to her that the knowledge and experience of tribal sweetgrass gatherers is being tapped and will help inform the park’s permit application to the NPS.
“I feel a responsibility to conduct this research in a way that will make the community proud by ensuring that their knowledge is being incorporated and valued as much as Western science is,” she said.
She added that the Wabanaki sweetgrass gatherers are excited about the prospect of being able to harvest in Acadia, where their ancestors were doing it centuries ago.
“There’s this feeling that the plants and the landscape remember the people,” she said, “And even though it’s been 300 years, there’s still a feeling of connection here.”
The federal rule allowing certain tribal members to gather plants in national parks requires that the activity be “traditionally rooted in the history of the tribe and … important for the continuation of the tribe’s distinct culture.”
Maine Indian basket makers are known nationally for their craftsmanship and creativity. In recent years, they have won top honors at major juried competitions. Baskets by Jeremy Frey and Geo Neptune, both Passamaquoddy, have won Best in Show and Best in Class awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix.
In 2016, Penobscot basket maker Theresa Secord was one of nine people selected to receive a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Previous fellowship recipients were Passamaquoddy basket makers Molly Neptune Parker, Clara Keezer and Mary Gabriel.
Greenlaw’s husband, Gabriel Frey, is a highly regarded Passamaquoddy basket maker.
“He is a serious basket maker,” she said. “I make baskets on the side.”