Profiles in Conservation

Weaving a Future for the Threatened Black Ash

It’s safe to say that Kelly Church is not yet a household name.

Someone unfamiliar with Native American basket weaving, invasive insects, or efforts to collect ash tree seeds in the upper Midwest might not have heard of her. In certain circles, however, she is very well known and is considered an influential and inspirational leader in the conservation community.

Church is a Native American member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa. She lives in the southwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and she spends much of her day most days weaving baskets of Native American design.  

One might say basket weaving is in her blood. She comes from a long line of weavers—a really long line, in fact. Though she herself has woven baskets professionally for only 15 years or so, her extended family has been at it much longer. The craft has been a family tradition for literally hundreds of years, or more. Museums on the East Coast possess black ash fragments thousands of years old.

“I come from a huge basket weaving family,” she said. “If there are 40 basket weavers in the State, about 25 are in my extended family.”

Like her family members and ancestors before her, she prefers one type of wood above all others.

“Black ash is really the one material that you can bend and twist and embellish in a beautiful way,” said Church. “We can actually split our black ash growth rings down to really thin strips, and this helps to give us the ability to bend the wood better.”

She said many types of wood can be used in basket weaving, but black ash is the best wood for that line of work. She should know. Church has already received several awards over the years for her basketry.

In addition to baskets, many Native Americans rely on ash trees for making a variety of products. These include lacrosse sticks, pipe stems, flutes, and medicinal remedies. Not only does black ash have physical properties that set it apart from other woods, it also has great cultural significance for Native Americans.

The black ash tree is used and revered by all native groups in the Northeast, she added. “The Wabanaki in Maine, their creation story started with them dancing out of the black ash tree,” she said. “In our story, the black ash was given to us to help us sustain and provide for ourselves. With all of the labor we put into basket weaving, the black ash helps us to create really beautiful things that we can use in everyday life.”

Unfortunately for black ash trees—and those who love them—an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer has been causing havoc to ash trees across 15 States and parts of Canada in recent years. It was first detected in the Detroit area in 2002.

Church lives near the spot where EAB was first detected. She knows its impacts well. “We call the area where we live ‘EAB Ground Zero’ here,” she said.

A native insect of Asia, EAB has few natural predators in North America. A flyer, it spreads quickly on its own and can be spread even faster transported in infested firewood. So far, the EAB has killed tens of millions of ash trees across a broad swath of the United States and Canada. That’s just the beginning, though. Some forest entomologists suspect that EAB might eventually spell doom for the entire ash tree family on this continent. That is, if nothing can be found to stop it.

“The EAB has been really devastating to natives in the Northeast,” said Church. “It touches our stories, our teachings, our cultural traditions. We’re losing a resource we’ve passed down for centuries, in a matter of decades.”

The loss of ash trees due to EAB negatively impacts Native American culture and the economy. The EAB infestation has raised public awareness and concern about invasive insects, though.

Church answered the call to action in big ways and is actively promoting an effort to collect black ash seeds to preserve the black ash genome as much as possible. She also personally organized three conferences, funding one of them by selling baskets. The conferences discuss the EAB’s impacts on the Native American community.

“Number 1,” she said, “we are collecting seeds from the black ash tree, and we’re storing them in the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, CO. Seeds stay viable for up to 30 years. We hope to replant black ash in Michigan and elsewhere.”

The seed collection effort has not been without its challenges, however. “We’ve had a little difficulty with this. The EAB can kill an entire black ash stand faster than the stand can regenerate. We’re losing the trees before we can collect their seeds,” she said.

“We are working with those people who would like to identify and collect these seeds, natives and others who would like to pay it back. We’ve been working with agencies and other natives in the Northeast. I happen to be in the State where it started, so that’s how I think I became known for it.”

Now other people are becoming interested in the issue and working together, she said.  This April, they have a third conference planned. Attendees are coming from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Maine, and Indiana.

Called “Sustaining Traditions: Emerald Ash Borer—Black Ash Basketry Symposium,” the conference will cover culture, seed collection, identifying good trees for basket making, and working with the youth.

“The seeds I’m collecting today, we won’t be able to replant them for a decade or two,” she said. “I don’t know if in my lifetime I’ll be able to see those trees grow. That’s why kids are important. We’re in danger of skipping a generation of basket weavers due to the emerald ash borer.”

As for life after the EAB and the ash, Church said, “We’ll go on and work with other trees. We heard the red maple has similar properties. There are many trees we can work with, but we’ll never give up on the black ash.”

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