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Beyond Traditional Borders: Working with Native American Tribes

Image of braids made from freshly cut sweetgrass blades that will be dried and burned during traditional ceremoniesThe Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers Farm Bill conservation programs and provides technical assistance to American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN). NRCS has an extensive joint outreach effort with the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA), and other partners to increase awareness of USDA services available to AIAN communities.

Natural resources on tribal lands may be culturally and historically sensitive. The NRCS Plant Materials Program (PMP) provides technical assistance to federally-recognized tribes in these areas. Assistance to tribes from the Plant Materials Centers (PMC) may include: 1) collecting seed and/or plants of concern, 2) determining propagation protocols, 3) selecting for desirable attributes, and 3) developing plant establishment and maintenance guidelines.

The New York Plant Materials Center (NYPMC) in central NY, delivers technical assistance and hosts workshops for Tribes and NRCS staff in the Northeast. The NYPMC has provided native plants to tribes across the northeast and other states.

Sweetgrass (Hierchloe odorata) is a native, culturally significant, cool season grass that thrives in wet, well-drained soils with limited drought tolerance at all stages of growth. It is used by Indian Nations for a variety of purposes such as basketmaking and medicine. Due the presence of coumarin sweetgrass has a strong sweet, vanilla scent. Braids are made from freshly cut blades, dried and then burned at traditional ceremonies, using the sweet-scented smoke as a purifying incense. Unfortunately, this sacred plant is in decline across many tribal lands.

An image of the rhizomes of the sweetgrass plant from the inside the container.

The NYPMC maintains a small outdoor nursery and a containerized population of sweetgrass collected from the Seneca Nation in western NY. Containerized plants and/or blades are provided to interested tribal members through requests from NRCS field office personnel. Plants have been provided to Indian Nations in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota, California, and Rhode Island. The goal is to assist tribes in establishing their own gardens and nurseries with material from the PMC, to provide a source of sweetgrass for their use. â€‹Sweetgrass is easily propagated vegetatively by dividing rhizomes of established plants. The plants establish quickly, and rhizomes spread rapidly. The technical propagation information is provided to assist the Indian Nations with the process.

In the summer of 2017, the NYPMC hosted a training focusing on declining habitats and species of cultural importance for Tribal communities in the Northeast. This training highlighted the PMCs work and technical information available, including information on seed collection, propagation methods, pollinator habitat, as well as information on NRCS’ conservation programs. Events and outreach provide excellent opportunities for sharing information on services NRCS and the Plant Materials Centers can provide and strengthens our working relationship with Native American people.

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