Research Partnerships with Native American Communities

intricately woven basket
Rivercane is a valued plant, and it provided materials for this intricate basket, which Shawna Cain of the Cherokee Nation made. Photo by Roger and Shawna Cain, used with permission.

“The Southern Research Station is working with a number of Native American tribes to promote forest ecosystem restoration and sustainability,” says Monica Schwalbach, USDA Forest Service assistant director. The projects focus on sustainability of botanical species that are important to indigenous communities.

SRS researcher Michelle Baumflek is the science lead for many of these projects, including several with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina. Baumflek works closely with SRS researchers James Chamberlain and John Schelhas, who are also involved in research with tribes.

In North Carolina, Baumflek and Chamberlain are working with Tommy Cabe, EBCI forest resource specialist. The team developed a monitoring protocol for sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata), an edible spring green. Their work resulted in a historic agreement with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allows EBCI members to harvest sochan in the park, as their ancestors have for millennia.

Cabe, EBCI artisans and elders, and Schelhas also recently developed an educational module about trees. The module features seven trees. It is designed for children and uses the Cherokee syllabary. Schelhas is continuing this line of work on the plant materials that Cherokee artisans use.

a pile of wild onions harvested the traditional way
These ramps, or wild onions, have been harvested the traditional way, and the roots that remain in the soil will re-sprout. Photo by Michelle Baumflek, USFS.

Baumflek, Cabe, and Chamberlain have developed a sustainable harvesting project for wild onions, or ramps (Allium tricoccum). The study compares conventional harvesting methods – taking the whole plant – to the EBCI approach, which is informed by traditional ecological knowledge and leaves part of the root in the ground.

“Leave the root, take the shoot,” says Cabe, summing up the EBCI approach to harvesting ramps. Early results suggest this method allows the plant to survive the harvest and re-sprout.

Ramps in Michigan are also being monitored through a partnership with the Intertribal Council of Michigan. Baumflek and Chamberlain are co-leads on the project and established study plots on the Hiawatha National Forest and on lands of the Bay Mills Indian Community. The SRS researchers provided expertise on ramp population monitoring and population dynamics. In May, they hosted a virtual training on monitoring ramps. Members of five tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin participated, along with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, managers from two national forests, and others.

Baumflek is working with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and others to develop a Southeast Rivercane Monitoring Initiative. The initiative aims to build connections between the people who know and cherish rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea) and those – especially members of indigenous communities – who are unaware of its significance.

“Rivercane is a culturally important plant species for most of the tribes in the Southeast,” says Baumflek. “It has a lot of potential to help with sediment runoff and bank stabilization, among many other things. It’s been basically eradicated. You can still find small stands of rivercane in lots of places, but the ecosystem has basically been destroyed.”

a cluster of rivercane's green stems
Rivercane is culturally important to tribes in the Southeast. Rivercane in the grass family. It grows beside streams and protects water quality. Photo by Michelle Baumflek, USFS.

Only 1 to 2 percent of the vast original area of canebrakes remain. The monitoring initiative is in a developmental stage but ultimately hopes to map where canebrakes remain on the landscape. This information will help restore access to the sites, which are a source of material for weaving baskets and making other items. “We need to map where rivercane is on the landscape before we can restore access to it,” says Baumflek. “We also hope to create habitat maps to guide models and future restoration.”

A regional meeting on rivercane restoration, cultural uses, and research had been planned for March 2020. However, the meeting had to be rescheduled for 2021. The meeting will be the first of its kind and will bring members of multiple Native American nations together with researchers and experts from across the USDA Forest Service and other agencies.

In Maine, Baumflek is working with the Wabanaki Tribes on a monitoring plan for sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata). The research methods are informed by the sweetgrass gatherers in the communities and will be used in an environmental assessment as the Wabanaki people seek to gather sweetgrass in Acadia National Park. The National Park Service provided a majority of the funding for the project.

“We are working with Wabanaki sweetgrass gatherers to explore how traditional harvesting techniques can enhance, rather than diminish, plant populations,” says Baumflek. So far, the research shows that plots harvested with traditional methods have more sweetgrass stems, while control plots did not have a statistically significantly increase.

The emerald ash borer threatens ash trees across the U.S. and Canada and has now been detected in three counties in Maine, where generations of Wabanaki people have used black ash (Fraxinus nigra) to weave baskets.

The impending loss of ash is spurring projects like another one Baumflek is involved in, which will teach young people and community-scientist volunteers to ground-truth black ash habitat models and monitor tribal forestlands for emerald ash borers.

The project is led by basket-makers, tribal foresters, and the Wabanaki Youth in Science program, along with the University of Maine. “This project complements existing Forest Service research and tribal efforts on EAB risk, detection, and management,” says Baumflek.

someone holding a bundle of sweetgrass, a lake and mountains in the background
Sweetgrass harvested during a participatory research project in Acadia National Park, Maine. Photo by Michelle Baumflek, USFS.

SRS researchers are involved in many other collaborations as well:

  • Jeff Prestemon worked with BIA to incorporate his research on wildfire prevention into a planning tool that is currently being field tested through BIA and the Bureau of Land Management.
  • A six-person team of foresters from the Forest Inventory and Analysis program cruised timber on Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian lands. They trained students at the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center, monitored hazard trees for bats, participated in public outreach, and helped document an archaeologic site.
  • Thomas Holmes worked with Comanche Tribe member Linda Moon Stumpff on a General Technical Report about wilderness. Moon Stumpff’s chapter is titled “Through the Taos Pueblo Lens: Understanding Tribal Wilderness Values and Emerging Strategies for Protecting Wild Lands.”

SRS is committed to its work with Native American nations. The shared research projects include the sustainability of plants that are important to tribes. There are many other areas of shared interest as well, such as water quality and fire management.

“The knowledge held by indigenous communities is their intellectual property,” says Baumflek. “When it is shared, however, it can make powerful contributions to ways that tribal lands are managed as well as the way that national forests operate.”

For more information, email Monica Schwalbach at monica.schwalbach@usda.gov or Michelle Baumflek at michelle.baumflek@usda.gov.

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