The legend goes that the first black ash tree grew from the ashes of the Anishnabe leader Black Elk. Before his death, Black Elk had a vision of how to pound the growth rings of the black ash into strips for basket weaving. Making the baskets, which people could use for trading or selling, was a long process. The tree had to mature, be harvested, prepared, and then finally woven. Thus, Black Elk saw how weaving baskets from the black ash would both provide for his people and teach them patience.
Since those ancient times, black ash baskets have become an important part of many Native American communities, including the Onondaga people of upstate New York. For the Onondaga, who are part of the Iroquois nation , basket weaving is an expression of art, history, and religion. Unfortunately, due to human pollution, wildfires, and natural diseases, the numbers of black ash are greatly declining. As a professor at the State University of New York in Syracuse (SUNY), I am working to restore forests of black ash trees on native Iroquois land.
To successfully restore the black ash, I have to think about the eco-system of the forest. For the black ash, the eco-system includes all of the other plants, insects, birds, and animals in the forest. The Onondaga people are also part of this eco-system and they have a lot of traditional knowledge about the forest. In my work, I strive to make a bridge between their native culture and the culture of academic science, so that together we can solve environmental problems.
I often feel like a bridge between cultures myself because I am part Potawatomi and part Caucasian. Although the Potawatomi are originally from the Oklahoma area, I was born in Schenectady, New York in 1953. My grandfather and great-uncles were the first of my family to come to New York when they were taken from the Potawatomi reserve and placed at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
As a child, I had the sense of living in two worlds. I was familiar with the native world and mainstream society, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in either one of them. One place I truly felt comfortable was outside. Although my family was removed from their natural homeland, they instilled in me a deep respect for the land of the northeast. My sister and I grew up with a lot of knowledge about edible and medicinal plants, and a deep sense of being rooted to the earth. It was this love of the land that made me know from a very young age that I wanted to be an ecologist.
I majored in Forest Botany at SUNY, the same university where I am now a professor. I then went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where I received my Ph.D. in Botany in 1983. Earning a Ph.D. has given me the credentials to show people that Native Americans and scientists can work together and share knowledge. In this way, I have finally joined my two worlds together.
Through my experiences, I have tried to bring to life the Anishnaabe saying, “Use your gifts and dreams for good.” It is my hope that my work with the Onondaga and SUNY teaches people to appreciate all forms of knowledge. It is also my hope that people of two cultures, will rather than feeling out of place, create a place for themselves. I have learned that ultimately, like the black ash, we must depend on our communities/eco-systems for survival.