Welimahskil: Sweet grass

A story by Suzanne Greenlaw from 2019

Suzanne Greenlaw (left) surveying sweet grass with Shantel Neptune. Photo by Holland Haverkamp, University of Maine

Sweet grass (Anthoxanthum niteris) is a perennial grass that grows in salt marshes and wet meadows. For Wabanaki people, welimahskil (sweet grass) is woven into our baskets and is a part of ceremonial practices as a form of spiritual medicine.

Wabanaki sweet grass gatherers have been sustainably harvesting sweet grass in the same locations for thousands of years. The cultural practice of harvesting sweet grass maintains our relationship to the landscape, provides a space to practice language and hear stories, and invokes memories and a presence of past family members and ancestors.

With a shift in Maine’s open land tradition, Wabanaki people are being denied access to traditional sweet grass beds. Often, gatherers are required to cross private property to access these traditional sweet grass locations. Some Wabanaki people have reported being verbally accosted, threated with dogs, or are in constant fear of being denied access.

Recent changes have spurred interest in Indigenous co-management of cultural resources on non-tribal lands. In response, Wabanaki gatherers and scientists are collaborating on studies that weave Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and western science to reinstate Wabanaki harvesting.

Suzanne Greenlaw, Maliseet
Ph.D student, University of Maine, Orono