Spotlight: Parks - Acadia

June 08, 2022 Nia Tero Season 2
Spotlight: Parks - Acadia
Show Notes Transcript

This week we’re shining a light on the land of the Wabanaki through an episode by our friends at the Parks podcast. The state of Maine was established on the lands of tribes including the Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy, collectively known as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” By the time the Rockefeller Family, who’d built their fortune on the oil industry, donated land to be used to form Acadia National Park, the Wabanaki people had already been long displaced from those lands, but that did not decrease their connection to them nor their responsibility for stewarding them. In this episode of Parks, scholars Darren Ranco (Penobscot) and Suzanne Greenlaw (Maliseet) share the history of the land’s colonization and talk about the Wabanaki’s recent efforts to access these lands in order to harvest cultural materials such as sweetgrass. We'd like to thank Parks host and co-creator Marty Mathis, co-creator Cody Nelson, and story editor Taylor Hensel (Cherokee.) Seedcast is hosted by Jessica Ramirez.

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Seedcast Season 2 BONUS
Spotlight: Parks - Acadia
June 8, 2021 

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: This is Jessica Ramirez, your host of Seedcast. I'm joining you from Coast Salish territory, and today, we have a spotlight for you from the Parks Podcast.

[music plays in the background]

It's a podcast exploring the truth about the creation of US National Parks, retold alongside Indigenous peoples.

Theme song by Mia Kami: Once pristine, once untouched, once pure all of that's no longer there anymore; stripped down torn apart chipped away piece of our hearts yet still we breathe…

[00:00:42] Jessica: You might remember that we shared their very first episode last year. And today, we are bringing you an episode from Parks about Acadia National Park. Acadia's in the far northeast corner of the United States, on land that was taken from the Wabanaki peoples, and where they harvest a plant that knows no borders. The Wabanaki know best how to care for it, and they feel it's their responsibility, and so they fought to be able to have access to it. This is a bit of their story. 

Thanks to Parks Podcast co-creators Mary Mathis and Cody Nelson, and story editor Taylor Hensel, for bringing this episode to us. Check out their website for more episodes at, as well as ways to learn about how you can support their work, and thanks for listening. 

Parks Episode 3: Acadia
Originally released March 24, 2022

[Parks podcast begins]

[00:01:46] Mary Mathis: To help understand the history of the land known today as Acadia National Park, I wanna start telling you about a plant. It's called sweetgrass. 

[00:01:55] Suzanne Greenlaw: It's a grass that grows in typically salt marshes, or wet meadows. It can grow from five feet to one foot in length; it has this beautiful shiny, emerald green color. 

[00:02:10] Mary: Unknowing eyes might walk past sweetgrass if they saw it. But for many Native people, including the Wabaniki people—Native to present-day Quebec and the northeastern United States—it’s much more than just a plant. 

[00:02:24] Suzanne: We have creation stories of sweetgrass. It's one of the four medicines that we use in our practice and our spiritual practices. We weave it in our baskets. People, when they smell it, they—it always brings back their smells from childhood.

[00:02:40] Mary: This is Suzanne Greenlaw.

[00:02:42] Suzanne: I am a citizen of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. I'm a PhD candidate at the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine. I'm also a harvester—I harvest both sweetgrass and brown ash and other culture materials. I am a mother too.

[00:03:00] Mary: Suzanne’s tribe is one of four primary tribes Native to the lands that eventually became the state of Maine, and later its sole National Park, Acadia. Together, the Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy are known as the Wabanaki, which loosely translates to “People of the Dawnland.” Her ancestors have gathered and cultivated sweetgrass for thousands of years. And Suzanne says the act of harvesting can help her stay in touch with her relatives. 

[00:03:32] Suzanne: So, it’s this relationship that is formed and built with the landscape, with a place, that you see year after year after year after year; and you recognize it, you go there. And then you know that your ancestors were there, in potentially the same place doing the exact same thing. And so the Native perspective is that they're guiding you, that they're there with you. You're sharing the same philosophy, the same practice 100 years later.

[00:03:58] Mary: Of course, the sweetgrass crop doesn’t follow human-created boundaries. It continued growing in Acadia National Park once the lands were colonized, taken under private ownership by settlers, and eventually put in the hands of the National Park Service. Yet for decades, the Park Service barred generations of Wabanaki people from harvesting sweetgrass inside the park boundaries.

[00:04:22] Darren Ranco: The creation of the park disrupted that practice, which is, for us, a practice of relationship and responsibility: we care for it, it will care for us. Well, at some point, someone came along and said, “You can't care for it, anymore.” That's a sacred responsibility that we have that was purposely cut off from us. 

[music plays]

[00:04:59] Mary: The Wabanaki’s access to Acadia has gotten better over time, but that’s only thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Suzanne working to spread traditional ecological knowledge of the Wabanaki. It’s their activism, research, knowledge, and really, persistence that’s made it so Native people have any ability to harvest sweetgrass within the park. But considering the history of this place, it’s not surprising that it took so long.

Just before Acadia became a national park, it was owned, in part, by the super rich. We’re talking the likes of the Rockefeller family; some of the richest people of all time who made their money in oil. The Rockefellers get a lot of credit for donating the land that’d become the park, which is an idea that only works if you believe in the possibility of donating stolen land. But, of course, there were people—Wabanaki people—living on and shaping the Acadia region long before the Rockefellers, or any of their ancestors, arrived on the continent. So, to help understand the Acadia landscape, we need to learn some more about how Indigenous peoples have cared for that land. That’s where Darren comes in. 

[00:06:26] Darren: My name is Darren Ranco and I'm a Penobscot Nation citizen and Chair of Native American Programs, and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maine.

[00:06:35] Mary: He grew up traveling to the park as a kid, which locals will also call Mount Desert Island, the island where most of the park sits. Darren abbreviates it as MDI, here.

[00:06:45] Darren: For thousands of years, tribal peoples have gone there, met there, harvested there, built relationship there with place and ancestors. I'm proud to maintain that connection to the place. Penobscots would travel back and forth, and something that my dad told me stories about was stopping—before you go on to MDI, actually stopping and doing your own clamming and having a feast as you're going there for the first part of the summer. 

[00:07:19] Mary: As a Native anthropologist, part of Darren’s work involves studying how humans have managed the land historically, and what that means. So, when we talked, Darren brought up this fairly common statistic relating to Indigenous land management.

[00:07:34] Darren: They'll say, you know, Indigenous people occupy and manage 5% of the world's land surface and that's where 80% of the world's biodiversity exists, right. So, 5% of the land; 80% of the biodiversity. 

[00:07:50] Mary: This figure often comes up in discussions of Indigenous peoples’ role in combating the climate crisis. In short, biodiversity, or the variety of life in a landscape or ecosystem, makes the earth habitable for humans and all other living things. Global climate change, alongside human-led habitat destruction and overutilization of resources, is cutting into this biodiversity—driving mass extinction, and rapidly making the planet a less-habitable place. When it comes to why Indigenous-held lands hold so much biodiversity, there are some common explanations. 

[00:08:30] Darren: People can say things like, “Oh, well, it's because it’s largely undeveloped because Indigenous people haven't been able to develop it for various reasons,” or “land schemes and property, you know, lack of full control over property,” etc, etc. We don't have biodiversity simply because we don't do anything to manage the land. In fact, it's quite the opposite; that we are responsible for maintaining and building, and being responsible for all of this biodiversity, and that is defined by our connection to places.

[00:09:06] Mary: This thinking was informed by a study that Darren worked on recently. It analyzed 12,000 years of human land management. One thing the study does is completely negates the idea that in order for human civilization to grow, it needs to exploit the land and its resources. Part of the research focused on how Indigenous land management shaped the land in favor of biodiversity, working to enhance food systems and help balance relationships among living things. 

[00:09:36] Darren: For most of those 12,000 years there have been purposeful impacts, but they have been positive when it comes to a lot of the environmental and biodiversity questions that we are now faced with. And then, therefore, that shifts the story that we are inherently the problem as human beings, and that we are meant to destroy ecosystems—colonization, extractivism—and these were very recent forms of economy and resource extraction that have been the real killers of our biodiversity. And that, in fact, for most of our experience as human beings on this planet, we have been able, through our own genius and connection to place, and responsibility for that place, maintained and built upon the biodiversity.

[00:10:29] Mary: Darren brought up that story you may have seen on the cover of The Atlantic last spring, in which the Ojibwe writer David Treuer argues that National Parks should be returned to the tribes. We agree fully with Treuer. One of Treuer’s main reasons for this is that Native people just take better care of the land than settlers. 

[00:10:48] Darren: Simply because our long stewardship of places has been about these forms of balance. As an anthropologist, I can confidently say that. You know, I'm sure there are any number of things like, “But you over hunted this or you did…” [trails off] Like, clearly, there are some of these things—most of them brought on by colonial pressures, by the way. But again, let's compare, you know let’s say, who's been better? Who's killed off more species? Indigenous people, or the modern Western sort of capitalist economy? We're gonna be considered in any sense of the imagination, the better stewards. 

[music plays]

[00:11:37] Mary: Back to Acadia. As we mentioned before, the parklands had already been colonized and privatized before the Park Service gave it borders and a name. Here’s Suzanne.

[00:11:48] Suzanne: By the time Acadia National Park was formed, Wabanaki people were already displaced, right. We'd already been removed from locations, really set on to the outskirts of towns, and moved around based on property owners’, you know, perspective of who we were. So sometimes we were seen as positive, sometimes we were seen as a negative community that we had to be removed to be hidden, more and more and more. So, I think by the time Acadia was formed, it was already considered private property of non-Native people. But it was a landscape that we had been present on pre-settler colonial times. Like when, you know, 1600/1700s, you can see records of Native people on those landscapes. We have different archaeological presence that we know that we were here, like the shell middens. There’s all of these things that exemplify our presence in these landscapes.

[00:12:43] Mary: But, as we mentioned earlier, the history of Acadia is riddled with praise for the Rockefeller family. Like the stories of the roads that John Rockefeller Jr built throughout Mount Desert Island so that he could see the landscape, but from the comfort of his horse and carriage. Wabanaki history is harder to find, though. The popular story of Acadia doesn’t begin with the land’s first peoples; it usually begins with settlers. 

[00:13:08] Darren: Yeah, their story starts with the creation of a park after I guess the Rockefellers and others donated a bunch of land to make the park possible. Well, that’s a really—by any stretch of the imagination, of course—that's very recent history, compared to our relationship to the place. 

[00:13:28] Mary: Folks like the Rockefellers didn’t have to fight for their rosy place in history. They had the privilege of their people writing the history. But because so much Indigenous history was passed from generation to generation in the oral tradition, people like Darren and Suzanne now face the burden of retelling the truth in ways that are friendly to academia. 

[00:13:49] Suzanne: That’s work for a lot of Indigenous scholars is to re-establish our history for ourselves, for our own understanding of our culture, to tell those stories again. Most of our anecdotal stories of people's experiences come from maybe a grandmother who was part of the sort of the outskirt town on the outside of Bar Harbor, and they sold baskets, or they sold sweetgrass baskets and things like that. That's mostly our story today that we actually can repeat from memory.

[00:14:17] Mary: Suzanne brought up the concept of blood memory—knowledge and memories shaped by a community’s collective past experiences and passed genetically through generations. 

[00:14:28] Suzanne: And when national parks become established, it's based on this, the idea of preservation, conservation, right. So where we remove humans, that's our way of protecting a landscape is to fully remove the human and we become spectators in that space, instead of active participants shaping that landscape. So I think for Acadia National Park, our memory of that place to bring back our practices are one of both our blood memory and an extension of our sovereignty; of our practices of values and rights in this landscape. 

[00:15:01] Mary: The Wabanaki fight to regain access to its sweetgrass harvest recently got a bit more optimistic when, a few years ago, the Park Service finally began loosening its stern regulations on tribal gathering of plants in national parks.

[00:15:15] Suzanne: In 2016, National Parks issued a federal rule change where federally recognized tribes that have a traditional relationship with these certain landscapes could enter into our formal agreement to harvest plant material—that’s how they would describe it from that side. 

[00:15:33] Mary: This might sound like a victory for tribes. But it’s more complicated. 

[00:15:37] Suzanne: In that rule, there's certain criterias that have to be met, right. They have to be federally recognized, they can't be a state-recognized tribe. They have to prove some sort of historical relationship with this landscape. It has to be considered traditional materials they're harvesting. For each species gathered, there has to be a finding of no significant impact. There has to be an environmental assessment done, and they have to prove that there is no impact to this resource through harvesting. And then the superintendent makes the final decision on if this rule goes through or not. 

[music plays]

[00:16:13] Mary: Fortunately, this rule change was a long time in the making. No one was surprised when it came through, Suzanne says, so the Wabanaki got to work. 

[00:16:23] Suzanne: To support this type of passing of a rule, we would need more research conducted to show that there's no finding of no significant impact, right. So first, we went to tribes and then the cultural harvesters, and sweetgrass by far was the one that people wanted to focus on in this landscape. We are having a reduction of sweetgrass harvest sites. Most Native people have to—Wabanaki people—have to cross private property to access our sweetgrass stands, our traditional harvest stands. And you know, when that private property ownership changes, a lot can happen that stops access to sweetgrass stands, or sweetgrass sites. And that's been slowly sort of like pinching in and making a reduction of our traditional sites. So when this opportunity came for Acadia National Park, harvesters wanted a place they could harvest sweetgrass that was protected.

[00:17:12] Mary: But to get that protected right to harvest, they needed proof that the harvest wouldn’t harm the land. But proof means two different things for the Park Service and the Wabanaki people. 

[00:17:24] Suzanne: Our proof of harvesting the same locations generations after generations is not enough proof based on the conservation scientists. That’s considered anecdotal kind of proof or knowledge. And there was a feeling that some sort of scientific research that’s published in that realm was important to create, to support these findings. So a study was set up to show what happened to sweetgrass through Wabanaki harvesting.

[00:17:54] Mary: Suzanne wasn’t on the project when it started, but two other scientists were.

[00:17:59] Suzanne: One was very much trained in the scientific approach—methodology of that sort of hypothesis, literature review, methods, results, conclusion approach, right. But there's a lot of issues in that approach when it comes to Native research. So he had set up that type of study, and this is where I started coming in when it comes to implementation of a study. When we started doing the methods, we played the methods out, and it was really uncomfortable, because what was happening is that based on this botanist review of methods from scientific literature, it was a very controlled study. This person determined both sites and methods of harvesting for Native people. So as a study that's supposed to support Native harvesting and Native knowledge was actually one that was really controlling, and not even letting people practice or exemplify their knowledge, right. It wasn't actually supporting the knowledge as a way to understand it. It was a way to extract components of the knowledge to say that we [it] actually was looking at Native harvesting.

[00:18:57] Mary: The way this went down—telling elders how to harvest—it felt wrong to Suzanne.

[00:19:03] Suzanne: Like you would never do that in the Native culture! I would never tell somebody who's so knowledgeable what to do. And so we were pushing back, we were really saying this is not right, this is—you're not even actually capturing Indigenous harvesting. So it came from what was two parallel studies…

[00:19:17] Mary: One would be led by non-Native scientists, using the restrictions of the scientific method. Wabanaki people would lead the other, incorporating traditional harvesting practices in every step along the way. Once they were complete, the studies found different results.

[00:19:33] Suzanne: The Wabanaki-led harvesting results showed the sweetgrass rebounding, and growing more than what was originally there after Native harvesting. And the scientific-led study was one where the population stayed the same, regardless of what happened. 

[music plays in the background]

So well, you know, the results seem very simple. It's not in a way of like, both how Native people felt in the research; how much, how proud they felt by the results. The fact that this scientific study could support their knowledge and support what Native people have always known, what our practice has always taught us: that harvesting sweetgrass is good for the plant. That the way to maintain the population, or a way to care for the population is through harvesting.

[00:20:18] Mary: What’s more is that the results of the study have helped Suzanne and others explore new ways of supporting Wabanaki culture and tradition with sweetgrass stands. 

[00:20:28] Suzanne: Right now we are working at sort of supporting the practice through understanding what could be Indigenous monitoring of these locations. How can this support like cultural protocols where Native people are there to say, “This rule was given to us to act under.” Right? How can we push back and say, “This is how we want to protect our knowledge, we want to protect our practice, this is what we want in this space.”

[00:20:51] Mary: While Suzanne ran into issues with colonial mindsets among her fellow researchers, she didn’t blame the individual.

[00:20:58] Suzanne: They don't come in with bad intentions. It's not like people are coming in wanting to do harm. So I really try not to make it seem like I'm blaming the scientific ego, or that scientist's ego or their perspective, because this person, these scientists come in with what they've been trained with, and how they understand how to move through this world of science, right. And so I'd rather blame the academy for this lack of education and knowledge that they're sharing with people, the idea that any scientist could work with Native people and work with Indigenous knowledge. I think it's false. I think you need to have—if you want to work with Native people and the knowledge—you need to have some sort of background, at least; something to educate you on what this knowledge is and how to protect it, and protect the people who generate this knowledge. I think if we attack the individual as well, it doesn't change things. And so that's where I think, for me, I think decolonizing is with individual people and the relationships we have, and I think that will then affect the larger structure of how we are taught things.

[00:22:01] Mary: While the work of Suzanne and others is helping to restore Wabanaki access to Acadia, it also shows something bigger. Something that has applications for all of us. 

[music plays in the background]

[00:22:12] Darren: We're in crisis, environmentally, and climate-wise. Indigenous people need to be—not only our knowledge systems—need to be at the forefront or centered; but our decision making practices and values when it comes to those places. I think it's shifting you know, that narrative, and you know honestly, it creates hope, in my opinion, by shifting the narrative and it's not saying humans are just bad and we're destined to do this. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

[music plays in the background]

[00:22:45] Mary: Parks would like to thank Suzanne Greenlaw of the ​​Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and Dr. Darren Ranco of the Penobscot Nation, for their generosity which made this story possible. We would also like to give gratitude and recognition to all the Wabanaki tribes including the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

We encourage you to check out Suzanne’s children’s book on sweetgrass, which she wrote with her husband Gabriel Frey. It’s called, “The First Blade of Sweetgrass: A Wabanaki Story.

Parks is hosted and co-created by me, Mary Mathis, and produced and sound designed by Cody Nelson. Our story editor and consultant is Taylor Hensel. Music by Mitch McAndrew. Kenyon Ellsworth designed our website, which is  

You can email us at, and please share this podcast if you liked it. You can also give us a review and subscribe wherever you’re listening to this show. Thank you for listening.