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Invasive beetle bores burden for basket makers

Lynn Jacobs, an environmental advisor/projects coordinator at the Kahnawake Environmental Protection Office, gave a presentation on the emerald ash borer for Cultural Awareness Month. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door/ Courtesy Natural Resources Canada)


The emerald ash borer may be a little bug, but environmentalist say it has detrimental impacts on not only Kahnawake’s forested landscapes, but Kanien’kehá:ka culture as well.

The small shiny green little beetle, indigenous to Asia, was first detected in North America in 2002 near Detroit, Michigan. Last year, the presence of the invasive beetle was confirmed in Kahnawake, causing concern for the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO.)

“It is estimated that this tiny little insect has already killed more than 75,000,000 ash trees since it arrived,” said Lynn Jacobs, an environmental advisor/projects coordinator at KEPO.

“We’re looking at the impacts of this insect from an environmental perspective, but it’s impossible to separate a lot of environmental impacts from the cultural impacts that result.”

Jacobs gave a presentation last week at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC) for Cultural Awareness Month. She provided an overview how to identify the three types of ash species in Kahnawake, signs to look for if they’re infested by the emerald ash borer, and things community members can do to lessen the spread of infestation.

“There’s no natural predators in Canada, so it’s able to just spread quickly and easily. The fastest way that it’s spreading is through people cutting trees for firewood or other purposes and transporting from place to place,” said Jacobs. “Most ash trees will die within 10-15 years of an infestation. So, it’s going to happen really quickly.”

EAB Traps2016-October
The Kahnawake Environment Protection Office conducted a survey during th summer of 2016 to identify the areas most affected by the emerald ash borer in the community. (Courtesy KEPO)

The larva kills all species of ash in Canada by boring into the cambium and sapwood below the bark, cutting off the water and nutrient supply from the root system. Infested ash trees die within three to seven years, with signs of stress in the tree such as crown dieback, epicormic shoots, and woodpecker damage noticed.

Kahnawake is home to thousands of ash trees. The highest concentration of infestation by the emerald ash borer was found in the Old School House Area of the community last fall. The park had approximately 100 ash trees that were infested to various degrees and had to be cut down.

“Black ash was already in decline prior to the arrival of the ash borer because it grows in wet areas and wetlands and people have been filling in our wetlands for a good number of years, so we’ve seen a decline in black ash,” said Jacobs. “Now, with the emerald ash borer impacts, obviously, the situation is much more serious.”

Black ash trees are used for basket making, a traditional Haudenosaunee practice. The black ash tree has a ring-porous quality that allows it to be pounded into splints for use in basketry.

While the emerald ash borer continues to wipe out trees across the area, Kanien’kehá:ka fear the loss of materials could potentially mean the loss of knowledge of basketry as well.

“The only thing anybody can do, it would cost a whole lot of money. I don’t think people are willing to spend that kind of money,” said Richard Nolan.

Nolan is one of the handful of community members involved in the recent resurgence of basking making.

While there’s no way to control or eradicate the beetle, the mostly widely used treatment is TreeAzin, a natural insecticide that costs between $150-$250 per tree every two years.

“Eventually, the bug is going to win and there will be no more ash trees,” said Nolan.

Nolan learned the craft over a decade ago, and has since been passing it on to youth and interested community members.

Richard Nolan spent last Thursday teaching students at Karonhianónhna School how to make ash baskets. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)
Richard Nolan spent last Thursday teaching students at Karonhianónhna School how to make ash baskets. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)

“It’s a part of our heritage. I’d like to just pass it on to other people that might keep it going so it doesn’t die out,” said Nolan. “If you show the young ones, they might not start but if you put it in their mind, as they get older, if only one of them makes baskets later in life, it keeps it going and hopefully they show other people how to make them.”

Knowing the potential cultural impacts, Jacobs said KEPO will be looking at developing partnerships with organizations in and outside of the community, including looking into acquiring black ash trees from surrounding municipalities.

“To them, it’s not important. They have to cut the trees and dispose of the trees, but the black ash has no value to them,” said Jacobs. “They’re in the process of cutting all their trees, so we’re trying to develop partnerships so we can acquire them for our community and set up pounding workshops to prepare materials to give away and for longer term storage, and the development of a seed bank.”

One of the community organizations they hope to partner with on this is the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC).

“It’s important because this is important to who we are as Kanien’kehá:ka people and to our community. We have many people in the community who have taken basket making and made it a part of their daily existence or the way they make a living,” said Reaghan Tarbell, executive director at KORLCC.

“They pass on the knowledge to younger people. It’s important to the community, it’s important to the Cultural Center. We really want to help out as much as we can.”

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