By Grace Neumiller, Keller Leet-Otley, and Tommaso Wagner
Brown ash trees, also known as black ash, are critically endangered throughout the state of Maine. The emerald ash borer, a parasitic beetle that has already killed ash trees across the United States, was first detected in Maine last May — several years before it was anticipated. Faced with these ongoing threats, the Wabanaki tribes — Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot — have been leading the defense of brown ash trees in Maine.
Native to wetlands, but often planted in New England towns, brown ash trees play a critical role in basket-weaving practices, particularly to those of the Wabanaki.
Jennifer Neptune, a member of the Penobscot Nation, director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers’ Alliance, and co-curator of an upcoming art exhibition at Colby College, says that brown ash wood is integral to indigenous basket weaving traditions. Not only does the wood possess flexibility and strength, but the brown ash is also considered to be the source of life in Wabanaki creation stories, central to Wabanaki culture. Under threat of local and global extinctions, brown ash tree endangerment jeopardizes the livelihoods of basketmakers and cultural practices of the Wabanaki.