Darren Ranco: Protecting Maine’s “Basket Trees” from an Invasive Insect
Anthropologist Darren Ranco wants his work to serve the people he studies. That’s why he knew he had to take action when he learned that Wabanaki basketmakers in Maine are facing a looming threat: an invasive beetle that could destroy the brown ash trees essential to their craft and culture.
The Wabanaki are said to have sprung from the ash tree when their cultural hero Gluskabe shot it with an arrow. They call the brown ash wikepi or “basket trees,” and have been weaving their exquisite baskets from it for centuries. Ranco says their deep knowledge of the ash is key to helping to save it.
In 2009, Ranco launched a study to find ways basketmakers and other groups could collaborate to protect Maine’s brown ash trees from the emerald ash borer, a beetle that has killed millions of trees in 14 states and 2 Canadian provinces. The work is urgent: the beetle is now found in New York and Quebec Province and researchers say there’s a good chance it will eventually arrive in Maine.
The study is the first in the nation to bring together diverse groups to try to prevent, curb and respond to a potential ash borer invasion. Collaborators include members of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, tribes, university researchers, state and federal foresters and others.
“We’re learning and tackling the problems together,” says Ranco, an associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American Studies at UMaine. “Everyone is a key participant in shaping research questions and moving knowledge into action.”
In the project’s first year, collaborators have begun to learn how to identify emerald ash borer destruction and collect brown ash seeds to store in a seed bank, should the insect strike. They also are mapping ash tree populations in Maine and educating the public about this potentially devastating insect.
The main way the emerald ash borer spreads is through firewood brought into Maine from elsewhere. Team member John Daigle, associate professor of forest recreation management at UMaine, joined others in testifying before the Maine State Legislature on behalf of a bill banning imported firewood, which was signed into law by Governor John Baldacci in April.
The researchers’ larger goal is to inform cross-cultural collaborations in addressing any invasive species threat. Findings also will contribute to improving policy-oriented research by determining effective ways to involve diverse stakeholders throughout the process.
Like all SSI researchers, Ranco engages a wide range of stakeholders to help design and conduct research that ultimately meets communities’ needs in tangible ways that foster sustainability. Key to this process, he says, is finding ways to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and power across cultures, which is a central question at the heart of his research.
“In the past, Native communities have rarely benefitted directly from research,” Ranco says. “We work in partnership with communities to define the problems and find solutions that are relevant to them.”
That commitment informs Ranco’s work to help tribes in Maine and elsewhere protect their cultural and natural resources. It also is what brought him back to home. A member of the Penobscot Indian Nation who grew up in Orono, he returned to his hometown in 2009 after teaching in the prestigious Native American Studies departments at UC Berkeley and Dartmouth, where he had an epiphany.
“I wanted to work on issues and problems that were urgent to the people I care about,” Ranco says simply. He soon joined SSI, where he found the opportunity to do exactly that.
As part of his SSI work, Ranco also is thinking about the next generation of creative problem-solvers. He is developing mentoring programs for Native American students at UMaine and organizing an ash seed collection training for students in the Indian Island schools. “There’s so much talent and vision in our Native communities,” he says.
The elegant, world-renowned baskets woven by Maine’s Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq artisans are not only an important source of livelihood, but also a living expression of an ancient craft and culture. Working with Native basketmakers, Ranco and his colleagues aim to find ways for Wabanaki artisans—and their communities—to thrive for generations to come.