Emerald Ash Borer Threatens American Indian Traditions

Emerald ash borer (EAB) is taking its place along with a few other insect pests to become an negative icon of American lore. A couple of other infamous icon pests include the boll weevil. They so affected southern US culture attacking cotton it has a monument in Alabama. Mormon crickets were destroying Mormon settlers’ first crop in Utah when sea gulls arrived to eat the pests and were honored with their monument. If EAB is to get a statue or monument, remains to be seen. The new aspect of this pests is the destruction of ash trees and its impact on everyone but especially American Indians culture and traditions.

Missouri had a bad EAB year with continued expansion from the first infestation in Wayne County. It was not a big or devastating increase but pointed out the difficulty of eradicating this pest. Other infested ash trees were found in the Kansas City area. EAB has killed tens of millions of ash trees across 18 states since it was first identified in 2002. It already has had a big impact on tribes and American Indian communities in Midwestern states.  

American Indian artisans use the ash for making baskets, lacrosse sticks, pipe stems and flutes. There are also traditional medicinal remedies made from ash. The ash tree is a central figure in some traditional and religious stories told by several American Indian tribes. As an example, the Ponca tribe used green ash wood for their sacred Sun Dance poles.

Tribes like the Abnaki, Malecite, Mezkwaki, Mohawk, Ojibwa, Penobscot, Potawatomi, Wabanaki and others use black ash for baskets. EAB infestation damage is making it harder for weavers to find healthy trees suitable for basket weaving. Good basket tree scarcity threatens this cultural tradition and source of economic support.

Some of the most beautiful American Indian pipe stems and flutes are carved from black ash. Pipes and flutes are often used for ceremonies and special events. Again, EAB threatens this tradition and economic support by decreasing the availability of ash trees used for pipe stems and flutes.

Eastern US tribes use different parts of ash trees to make medicinal cures. Some tribes use ash sap to treat external skin growths. Other tribes value an extract of ash leaves as an antiseptic for use after childbirth. Some tribes use a tea made from ash bark to treat itching scalp and sores. Ash seeds are used as an aphrodisiac, diuretic, appetite stimulant, and remedy for fevers. EAB threatens traditional medicines and the possible source of future medicinal uses. Maybe more ceremonial than medicinal, Iroquois men would chew ash bark as part their hunting ritual.

Lacrosse is a game with ceremonial origins to bring tribes and families together. Traditionally, lacrosse sticks are made from ash.

Members of American Indian tribes and communities are working to preserve the ash trees, especially black and green ash, from EAB. One of the most important things for everyone is to not move ash firewood. Movement of fire wood is the biggest threat to the rapid spread of EAB. Firewood moved into Missouri was the most likely way EAB infested ash trees at a Wayne County camp site.

Infested states have a state wide bans on firewood movement. Moving ash firewood is quarantined from Carter, Iron, Madison, Reynolds and Shannon counties in southeast Missouri and Clay and Platte counties near Kansas City to prevent the accidental spread of the beetle. The quarantine regulates the interstate (between states) movement of potentially-contaminated wood products, as well as movement, intrastate (within the state), between these counties and other Counties within Missouri. The quarantine of EAB-host wood and wood products from Wayne County includes: Ash nursery stock; Any part of an ash tree; including logs, green lumber, waste, compost, chips; and Firewood from any species of hardwood since specific wood identification may be difficult from processed or cut and split wood.

Source: Jim Jarman, Agronomy Specialist 573-642-0755 and several excellent websites including: http://www.emeraldashborer.info/files/EABImpactsOnAmericanIndianCommunities.pdf; http://www.native-languages.org/ash-tree.htm and http://www.native-languages.org/legends-plants.htm; and http://nativeamericanencyclopedia.com/native-american-ash-tree-mythology/