Cattaraugus Reservation, N.Y. • The Seneca Indian Nation is strengthening its roots to the land with a new commitment to use only indigenous plants and trees in public landscaping.
The western New York tribe is believed to be the first to formalize a practice that tribes throughout the country are embracing as a way to preserve Native American culture and the environment.
From now on, instead of Austrian pines, Japanese maples and other foreign species, there will be native balsam firs, sugar maples and white ash trees outside Seneca schools, office buildings and casinos. Wild bee balm, cinnamon fern and butterfly weed that grew in abundance on their own will take the place of the Dutch bulbs and other non-native flowers and shrubbery that have become typical in commercial landscaping.
The planting policy approved by the Seneca Tribal Council this spring is an offshoot of the tribe’s "Food is our Medicine" gardening program launched last year with the goal of reducing diabetes by reconnecting members with the earth and the healthy fruits and vegetables they once relied on.
Tribal leaders said the notion that the land would provide food, remedies, building materials and fibers was becoming lost in modern times.
"The lawn is a European concept. Grass does not serve any function," noted Ken Parker, the nation’s native plant consultant. "There’s no habitat for wildlife. It doesn’t feed any butterflies or do anything for the bees."
Now, where manicured grass used to grow outside the William Seneca administration building, high-bush blueberries, yellow honeysuckle, sweet fern and St. John’s wort thrive.
"People plant plants around because they look nice and don’t care where they’re from," Seneca President Barry Snyder Sr. said. "We were starting to lose that part we had centuries ago when the natives were here and they had all these things in front of them."
Tribal leaders decided that bringing them back would start with using exclusively indigenous species around public buildings and educating the public with the hope members will embrace the idea at home.
The Senecas already have reintroduced more than 25 native species on their Cattaraugus and Allegany territories. They are considering opening a nursery to maintain supply, something numerous tribes throughout the country already have done to combat declines in native plants brought on by development, grazing, mining and invasive species.
On the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona, invasive salt cedar and Russian olive trees are being replaced with native willows and cottonwoods as part of efforts to restore wetlands: Each salt cedar alone absorbs up to 20 gallons of water a day.
In California, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians’ nursery was begun to revitalize the relationship between the tribe and its aboriginal land and the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians’ Four Seasons Native Plant Nursery pays homage to the ancestral practice of relying on whichever plants are in season throughout the year.
The juneberries growing now on Seneca land can be cooked into jam, the witch hazel used as an antiseptic. Waxy bayberries can be harvested for candles, and New Jersey tea, a white flowering shrub, may be dried and brewed — just as it was by colonists seeking substitutes for the British imports scarce after the Boston Tea Party.
"When we drive on the highway, we should see the flora of the region," Parker said. "We don’t. We do Colorado spruce here in New York state because it’s salt tolerant. It works here, but it doesn’t belong here. We need to show our regional look. We need to educate our children about what is the look of the region."
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