The struggle to preserve the ceremonial grass of the Annishinabe Ne-I-Yah-Wahk
Story by Tyler Nienstedt, Photos by Lukas Prinos
A rust colored warehouse sits without fanfare, off the well-used U.S. Highway 2, at the west entrance of Havre, a small Montana town. It is a pawn shop, packed to the brim with old trinkets and neglected in terms of organization.
At the back of the shop, sitting on the glass cases that hold the more expensive items under lock and key, is a white cardboard box held together by masking tape. In it, are several 3-foot-long sweetgrass braids. Scrawling letters in black Sharpie label the box’s contents at $25 per braid.
The pawnshop, located 35 miles from the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, home to the Annishinabe Ne-I-Yah-Wahk people, has become a reliable, if disappointing, place where tribal members can find their sacred prayer grass.
However, these braids are different, by nearly every measure: the color is off, it’s not quite green enough; the smell is different, it’s not as strong; And the braids are noticeably thinner than people are used to.
“Sweetgrass is held in high regard,” said Keith Gopher, a tribal member. “I mean you pray with it.”
Gopher, who is also the tribe’s water quality manager, compares selling sweetgrass at a pawnshop to buying holy water from a gas station.
His coworkers, also tribal members, nod in agreement.
The sweetgrass that grows on the Rocky Boy’s reservation has inhabited the plains and wetlands there for centuries and is unique to this specific area. Used in ceremonies and for personal use, the Anishinabe Ne-I-Yah-Wahk believe the smoke carries prayers to their Creator.
The long, textured braids of sweetgrass are omnipresent in tribal culture throughout the west. They are tucked away in desks, looped and hung from rearview mirrors, tacked against walls and placed on gravesites. The ends are commonly charred black from use.
Emitting a sweet vanilla scent when burned, sweetgrass can also be brewed as a tea to soothe coughs and sore throats.
In recent years, the sweetgrass on the Rocky Boy’s reservation has become harder to find.
As climate change increases overall temperatures, the region, which includes the plains leading into the Bears Paw Mountains, is experiencing reduced annual snowpack. As a result, the wetlands are drying out, which make it difficult for sweetgrass and other native species, like yarrow and buffalo berry, to grow. Meanwhile, the drier climate is welcoming various forms of invasive weeds.
According to Tara Luna, a botanist working with the tribe, “Steady declines in stem density is related to an increasing warm temperature trend and increased evapotranspiration and competition for moisture with pasture grasses.”
Sites that used to flourish with the green sweetgrass are now filled with dandelions, knapweed and cattails.
Invasive species are a national problem and cost the U.S. an estimated $21 billion per year in eradication efforts. According to Montana’s Department of Agriculture, more than 92 million acres are infested with noxious weeds in Montana alone.
To Gopher, and his team of environmental protectors, this is sounding the alarm that their prayer grass, held sacred and used for centuries, is not guaranteed in the future.
It wasn’t until his mother, Patsy, a tribal elder, first noticed a change in the sweetgrass over 15 years ago that Gopher understood the gravity of what was happening.
She recounted her days picking sweetgrass in the ‘70s to him, describing a day-long family excursion that included a picnic of dried deer meat, ripe juneberries, and a year’s supply of sweetgrass packed into their wagons by the time the sun had set.
In those days, they would gather enough grass to make 200-300 thick braids, some more than 5-feet- long.
“We were finding sweetgrass as long as my two arms,” Thomas Limberhand, a tribal member, said, stretching his arms wide. “Now these past couple years,” his face fell and voice trailed off while holding his hands just inches apart.
Today, the sweetgrass hardly compares. Even gathering enough grass for 100 braids is considered impressive.
When Gopher heard these stories, he knew he had found something that both needed protection and was worth protecting. He’s spent the past decade doing just that.
Gopher drove his Chevy Silverado miles into the backcountry, relying on his feet when the large truck couldn’t make the steep climbs, and for the past five years, on a knee that desperately needed to be replaced.
The first step was to figure out why it was disappearing.
Already, the tribe, as a whole, is losing traditional ecological knowledge with each passing of an elder. Gopher is worried that if sweetgrass isn’t protected, the grass and its cultural benefits will die along with the older generation.
“We’re not paying attention to things that make us Native American,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention to sweetgrass, pay attention to your culture, your beliefs, it’s going to go away.”
He started his research through conversations with the elders, mapping out the old sweetgrass sites through the stories of their past.
Almost immediately, he noticed the dramatic differences they spoke of. “They were right, it was just gone,” Gopher said.
So, Gopher secured funding to bring in Tara Luna, a botanist of 27 years from the Blackfeet reservation.
Since being hired by Gopher more than a decade ago, Luna has collected data and, in doing so, she has discovered a few critical differences between Rocky Boy’s sweetgrass and sweetgrass found and grown elsewhere.
For instance, Rocky Boy’s sweetgrass does not flower, making it entirely unique, and also particularly sought after for burning uses because of its stronger smell and ability to stay green for longer.
“The sweetgrass at Rocky Boy retains its green color after its braided, throughout the winter, for up to a year,” Luna said.
Gopher said it’s always been like this. “When we showed (the elders) examples of a flowering plant, they said ‘That’s not our sweetgrass.’”
However, in the absence of flowering, this grass must reproduce in another way. It turns out, it does so through its roots, or more specifically through rhizomes.
Rhizomes develop from axillary buds at the bottom of the plants, and grow horizontally. They are then able to produce new shoots and grow upwards. Thus, these plants are all interconnected and stemming from a single parent plant, Luna said.
These characteristics also make this species particularly vulnerable to stressors and especially sensitive in its competition with other plants for water sources.
With roots about 8-12 inches long, a stable, if not consistent, water bed is crucial to the survival of the rhizomes. A historical drought in 2017 was critical in confirming this.
The recorded precipitation throughout the spring and summer that year was the lowest ever recorded, with more than one-fifth of Montana in severe or exceptional drought.
Droughts of this intensity are 20% more likely due to anthropogenic—or human—influences.
According to a drought assessment report compiled in 2019 by several University of Colorado scientists, “human-induced warming intensified the severity of the 2017 Northern Great Plains drought.”
By monitoring blade length and plant height at four different sweetgrass sites, Luna found direct correlations between annual heating trends and increasing drought that corresponded with declines in waterbed and sweetgrass levels.
In theory, if there is a year of drought, sweetgrass can go dormant for the year and, with a few years of favorable precipitation to replenish the groundwater, regenerate itself. However, precipitation levels in the Bears Paw Mountains continue to show declines due to climate change. When noxious weeds come into play, regeneration is all the more difficult.
Unlike sweetgrass, noxious weeds are able to occupy a hydro-gradient. This means they can survive in very wet regions and very dry ones. They also tend to have more robust root systems.
“They take up more nutrients, more water, more space,” Luna said.
And according to natural resource expert Tracy Tyner, weeds on Rocky Boy’s are doing just that. “It’s in everybody’s yard, on the grazing land, along the water,” Tyner said.
Absorbing all of this data, Gopher and Luna have decided that the sweetgrass may need an entirely new home if it has any hope of outcompeting invasive species.
Last summer, Gopher uprooted several sweetgrass plants and transplanted them into a plot outside his office. Each day he would water the plot while drinking his morning coffee.
“I was basically just trying to see if I could do it,” Gopher said.
But his mom told him: ‘If you pay attention to it, it will respond.’ He was pleasantly surprised. After just a few months, “the blade was as wide as my thumb,” he said.
Now, the hope is to use assisted migration, a concept spearheaded by Luna, to map out sites that are closer to headwaters on the reservation and absent of noxious weeds and then move the sweetgrass to those sites.
“If you take a portion of a rhizome and leave the rest of the plant intact, that rhizome will produce new plants and be genetically identical to the donor plant.” This, according to Luna, is crucial.
The rhizomes connecting each plant contain starches, proteins and other helpful nutrients that can assist the plants when producing new shoots.
So, even when it seems as though the population is dwindling, it’s possible to bring it back.
“As long as the root system remains viable, under the right conditions, the plant can regenerate,” she said.
Implementing migration of course, takes money. But funding is exactly what they have been struggling with for the past few years.
Gopher and his team receive their grants from the Environmental Protection Agency.
After years of securing grants from the EPA, Gopher has a pretty good idea of what they will, and will not, fund. He said sweetgrass protection is unfortunately in the latter category.
The first few years Gopher wrote sweetgrass protection directly into the wetland grant applications, hoping that something of such high importance to the tribe would be taken seriously.
However, when provided with federal wetland assessment tools, Gopher found that they failed to take into account the traditionally important plants on their lands. The result of the federal assessment meant similar ratings for plots of land that did not hold culturally significant species.
According to Gopher, “They didn’t include anything that was important to us at Chippewa Cree.”
Buffalo berries, considered a superfruit, and crushed yarrow, which is applied to wounds and burns, are examples of the many native plants that went without recognition.
With the grant money they did receive, Gopher developed a range of assessments that identified plants of medicinal and cultural value. This system gave those particular plants a higher score, and thus the wetlands they were found on, more protection.
The tribe’s former EPA program officer, Jennifer Wintersteen, said it’s because sweetgrass is not considered a “true wetland grass.” She added that much of the money Rocky Boy’s has received is for research rather than restoration.
“We were going outside of this box they wanted us to fit in, with our sweetgrass work,” Gopher said. But despite these setbacks he is steadfast in his work.
Since then, with the help of Wintersteen, Gopher has been strategic in the wording used in grant applications in order to continue to receive funding to monitor headwaters for potential sites to migrate the sweetgrass.
The past few years the tribe has picked up the funding to ensure Luna could continue to travel to Rocky Boy’s and monitor the sweetgrass specifically.
“It’s our medicine cabinet,” Councilwoman Jody LaMere referred to the land right outside the tribal headquarters. She is in full support of the sweetgrass restoration project and made that clear in a recent meeting with Daryl Wright II, the tribe’s environmental director.
“I wasn’t at the meeting but Daryl was,” Gopher said offhandedly while he explained the funding situation.
But it’s no surprise that Gopher didn’t attend this meeting. According to Daryl, he’s “a different kind of cat,” one that most definitely does not attend meetings.
Instead, he’s out of cell service, behind the wheel of his oversized Silverado, with a brand-new knee and a pack of cinnamon gum – searching for the perfect sites to relocate his tribe’s sacred prayer grass.
And once summer comes, he hopes to show the places he has found to the kids, he will teach them how to pick the sweetgrass and explain why it’s important as Annishinabe Ne-I-Yah-Wahk to do so.
“The youth. Our future.” Gopher said.
A SPECIAL PROJECT BY THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
ADDITIONAL FUNDING SUPPORT FROM THE GREATER MONTANA FOUNDATION