Sweetgrass
15 Jul 2018

Sweetgrass

 

15 Jul 2018

Sweetgrass

by: Colleen Truskey

Greetings from Salem, Massachusetts! My name is Colleen Truskey, and this summer I will be joining ACE’s Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program (CRDIP).

Prior to this internship I had never been to New England. I was raised in Roanoke, Virginia and later attended William & Mary, located on the opposite side of the state. After I graduated in May of 2017, I spent a year working dual fellowships with the National Audubon Society and my alma mater’s Center for Geospatial Analysis. Now that I have joined ACE, I will be working for the Northeast Regional Office of the National Park Service as a GIS (geographic information systems) intern.

This makes my situation somewhat unique. Unlike many of my fellow interns, I am not working on a project for any one specific park. Rather, I have been assigned to create a GIS that depicts NPS units throughout the Northeast Region and how tribal areas of interest interact with those lands. The resulting application, likely an interactive web-based map, will be used to better inform both tribal and park leadership of key contacts on either side. My partner on this project is Cody O’Dale, a fellow CRDIP intern based out of Idaho.

Cody O’Dale and I at Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell, MA for our preliminary “kick-off” in late June.

The Custom House (left) and the Hawkes House of Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Salem Maritime NHS was gracious enough to offer me office space for the duration of my internship. Thanks, Salem Maritime!

I have been working now for two weeks, long enough to get a better sense of what my days will actually look like. There have been plenty of meetings, and many hours spent familiarizing myself with relevant materials from other federal offices—the Forest Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Communications Commission, among others. With few exceptions, most offices are obligated by law to consult with tribal communities on projects that have the potential to impact tribal land, so it is no surprise that there are a number of extant lists and applications out there intended to help make the process easier. Unfortunately, none of these products exactly meet the needs of the Northeast Region; hence the work Cody and I have been assigned.

This is a technical internship, so I will be spending the vast majority of my time in front of a computer working with specific software programs that will allow me to organize and visualize data on public and tribal lands. Fortunately, my supervisor, Dr. David Goldstein (head of Tribal and Cultural Affairs for the Northeast Region), has several trips planned so I can see what consultative work actually looks like at parks. The first trip was last weekend, when we drove up to Acadia National Park.

First designated as such in 1919, Acadia is the oldest National Park this side of the Mississippi River. The park is made up of several islands and peninsulas off of the coast of Maine, home to striking coastal views. Think seawater rhythmically drumming against a plateau of ancient eroded stone; slender blue irises and wild roses bursting forth in abundance from the crags; pine, fir, and birch growing straight and tall over it all. We were not there to tour the sights, however, but rather to attend a daylong meeting between park representatives and tribal members where the topic of discussion was sweetgrass.

Some of the scenery on Schoodic Point, within Acadia National Park.

Some of the scenery on Schoodic Point, within Acadia National Park.

Sweetgrass is not a “flashy” plant. It is a fairly common grass, actually, that grows predominantly in and around marshes and wetlands in northern Europe and North America. Historically, a number of indigenous communities gathered sweetgrass, valued for its fragrance, medicinal qualities, and long leaf blades used in the creation of baskets and other household goods. As a result of increased development, environmental degradation, and fragmented landownership, contemporary gatherers have found it far more difficult to harvest the plant in a safe and sustainable way.

Hence the meeting in Acadia National Park. At the Schoodic Institute, located within Acadia near Schoodic Point, sweetgrass gatherers from the Mi’kmaq (Lnu), Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik), Passamaquoddy (Pestəmohkat), and Penobscot (Penawapskewi) nations met with researchers and park representatives to discuss harvesting sweetgrass within Acadia’s boundaries. The gatherers have been harvesting the plant within the park for a couple of years now under the auspices of local researchers, all in an effort to secure permanent harvest rights. Eventually they will need to prepare a report with their findings, draft a plan for how harvesting will be managed, and submit it to park authorities for approval, a process that could take some time.

The meeting was held largely to prepare everyone for the next steps and present the data that had been collected so far, all of which appeared to confirm what the gatherers had long been asserting—the plant grows better after being harvested. More specifically, the plant grows better after being harvested according to long-practiced indigenous methodologies. The room lit up when the results were announced; one participant declared, “science is finally catching up to us.”

Such validation has been hard-won. The National Parks, “the best idea America ever had,” did not come into being uninhabited. The “crown jewels” of the nation were carved out of indigenous homelands, crudely—and often violently—separated from the peoples who originally helped to shape these landscapes and who were in turn shaped by them. This was done to the detriment of all, including the parks themselves. Indigenous knowledge can better inform our understanding of the landscapes we now inhabit and render us better stewards of the places that define America in the popular imagine. More importantly, incorporating indigenous stories, values, and peoples is the right thing to do. Yet only recently have we begun to “catch up.”

Another view off of the coast of Schoodic Point, within Acadia National Park in Maine.

I had no direct role in the meeting at Acadia; my sole responsibility was to listen. Nevertheless, I saw a clear connection to the project I am currently working on. By making it easier for tribes and parks to “find each other,” more meetings like the one in Acadia can occur, and more historical wrongs can be righted. Horrible mistakes have been made, and the goal—at the very least—is to not make them again.

With that in mind, I am ready and anxious to continue the work. ‘Til next post!

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