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St. Regis Mohawks Battle Emerald Ash Borer

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The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of upper New York State is among numerous environmental and Native American groups studying ways to stop an epidemic of emerald ash borer, an insect that has killed millions of black ash trees in the U.S. and Canada.

At stake is part of the St. Regis Mohawks’ livelihood: The tribe is known for basketry and other artisan work derived from the bark and wood. Now the National Endowment for the Arts (NEH) has stepped in with a grant to help the tribe both combat the insect and preserve records of the craft.

The trees’ bark is the substance of baskets whose sales help sustain the tribe, and the wood is used to make other objects whose workmanship is fine enough to have earned it spots in museums and collections, including the Smithsonian. Various tribes and universities are studying how to fight the ash borer and to preserve stands of the trees.

The tribe’s environmental division announced the grant on Jan. 6, saying it will be used to assess historical collections relating to this craft and develop long-term plans for preserving related documents. The project also includes conducting a workshop about collections storage.

Les Benedict, assistant director of the tribe’s environment division, said he is donating 20 years’ worth of documents to its library to “make black ash information more widely available to the community and to other researchers.”

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The documents include photographs and correspondence that built up during his time working with the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) on black ash, he said.

“Being able to house these records will prevent their loss and/or damage and will ensure the information is available into the future.”

He added that Akwesasne Museum Program director Sue-Ellen Herne will also work on the project.

There is a lot of artisanship to preserve. The trees tend to grow in wet areas, so harvesting is usually done in winter and the trees slid out over the ice. Before the tree is harvested, a chip is cut out to gauge the moisture content. If the tree is selected, it is chopped down, and the trunk is pounded with a sledgehammer or an axe handle so that long, splintlike slivers of wood split off. The “splints” are run through a jig to make the size uniform, then are soaked and woven into baskets. Sometimes they are also dyed, according to the tribe’s description of the process.

The Utica Daily News reported that the emerald ash borer was introduced to the United States in 2002 and went on to kill tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. It made its way to New York State in 2010.