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Wabanaki Heritage Garden

A brief history and current information about the garden

The Wabanaki Heritage Garden at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was established in 2009, when Jennifer Prokey, an Environmental Studies and Sustainability Program major, embarked on a directed study – a senior science project that would establish a garden on campus specifically created to showcase plants that have been used for many generations by the Wabanaki people. The Wabanaki have inhabited Maine and Maritime Canada for at least 11,000 years. The four tribes that make up the Wabanaki are the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot.

Prokey, who had transferred to UMPI with an Associate’s degree in horticulture, conducted extensive research in order to construct lists of appropriate plants and their uses, using published materials and interviews with tribal members. The study involved working with Mr. Solomon “Rocky” Bear (Maliseet, from Tobique, New Brunswick) and Glenda Wysote-Labillois, (Mi’kmaq from Listuguj, Quebec).

Project Compass funding through a mini-grant written by Dr. Alice Sheppard continued the effort beyond the first semester. Project Compass is a program on the UMPI campus that aims to support the advancement of Native education, student retention and degree attainment.

The now-established garden is situated in a woodland setting, made available when a large spruce was felled by a microburst. It is on the north side of the Central Campus Woods, roughly on a straight-line between Preble Hall and the campus library. Large blue signs mark the garden, and help explain its creation and purpose. It now contains over 50 plants, a combination of herbaceous perennials, small shrubs, and trees. The plants were purchased from a number of nurseries, while some were donated by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Each plant is identified with a plant sign, containing one or more names in Mi’qmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, or Penobscot; the botanical name; and the common name.  Some of the highlights include Cypripedium calceolus (yellow lady’s slipper), Lilium canadensis (canada lily), Hierochloe odorata (sweetgrass) Fraxinus nigra (brown ash), and Apios americana (groundnut or Indian potato).  All of these plants were used for medicine, food, or crafts, and are additionally integral to Wabanaki culture. The brown ash, especially, is revered for its spiritual connections and is the wood most commonly used in traditional Native basket making.

Much work has gone into assuring proper conditions for the plants. This included incorporating significant amounts of humus and measuring the soil pH. Plastic pond liners have been used to accommodate bog plants. Other challenges include the facts that some of these plants are aggressive, some are difficult, and some are potentially harmful to children (stinging nettles). Because so much traditional knowledge has been lost, there is still some uncertainty for a few plants as to their botanical identity. Moreover, reliance on an oral language results in different spellings, as well as ambiguity as to its Native name.

The guiding philosophy has been to illustrate the Wabanaki worldview and lifestyle. In the Native tradition, all living things are a gift of the Creator, and, together with the earth itself, must be treated with reverence. Professor David Putnam teaches that traditional knowledge regarding the use of the plants is coupled with a traditional ethos about how and when to gather them. Symbolic offerings of “medicines” illustrate the belief that when one takes, one must give, and when one disturbs a living thing, it must be done in “a good way.”

Solomon “Rocky” Bear, a Maliseet (Wolastuqiyik) Elder and medicine man of the Tobique First Nation who helped with the project, said that, for him, it was an excellent opportunity to share an important part of the Maliseet culture with Native and non-Native people alike. “It’s for everyone who wants to learn,” he said.

With the garden complete, Prokey is hoping that it will serve as an excellent learning opportunity for many years to come.

"It is an honor to have collaborated with Rocky, Dr. Sheppard, Professor Putnam and others in the creation of this garden,” Prokey said. “Working with people of such diverse knowledge and skills has been a joy, and I am pleased that we are able to bring to light the rich ethnobotany and wisdom of the Native people of this region. With the convenience of having a garden on campus, we are able to easily share these wonderful plants with students and the public. I hope others are able to enjoy them as much as I do."

The Wabanaki Heritage Garden is currently managed by University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteers.