This Prairie Grassland Project Collects Native Seeds

By Kylie Mohr

This story originally appeared on High Country News and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Laughter and the chirping of grasshoppers mingled on a mild August morning as several young women, members of the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes, searched for sweetgrass, running vegetation through their fingers as they tried to determine whether they held satiny sweetgrass or rough sedges. One held strands of sweetgrass in her mouth as the plant’s scent, reminiscent of vanilla and oak, drifted through the air. Sweetgrass is braided, used in smudging ceremonies, and presented as a gift by many Indigenous people, both here on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and across the United States and Canada. “Can I come back next summer?” Savannah Spottedbird, a 17-year-old member of the Nakoda Tribe, shouts across the meadow, waving long blades of grass. “I want to do more of this!”

The moist meadow was surrounded by stands of aspen. Sweetgrass is often found in wetlands and along riverbanks, where it stabilizes the soil against erosion. Fort Belknap encompasses 623,000 acres of mostly prairie grassland in north-central Montana. The reservation is home to both the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) tribes, which share a single government as the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Tyrus Brockie, a 22-year-old member of the Aaniiih Tribe, stood near Spottedbird, busily snipping off seed tops and dropping them into a paper bag.

The young adults were part of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Grassland Restoration Project, a partnership between the reservation and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Gathering seeds from healthy plots is the first step in restoring dry, dusty degraded land in the area, a visible mark of colonization. Changes in land use here can be traced back to the Dawes Act of 1887, when the federal government subdivided tribal lands and tried to force assimilation into US society.

The grassland restoration project was created to revitalize the land, but it also helps the young adults who do the work. “They may not know it yet, but it’s empowering for them,” says project coordinator Dan Werk (Aaniiih), the Tribal Historic Preservation Office’s cultural liaison. “These youth are going to be able to take ownership of healing the land at Fort Belknap.”

The idea for the project began in Alberta, Canada, where program director Cristina Eisenberg, who is of Raramuri and Western Apache heritage, has led similar fieldwork with the Kainai First Nation since 2013. “To me, what matters most is empowering young people,” says Eisenberg, an ecologist at Oregon State University. In 2018, the BLM’s plant conservation and restoration leader introduced Eisenberg to Wendy Velman, the head of the BLM’s botany program for Montana and the Dakotas who was also working separately to partner with tribes on seed collection. The two women were invited to meet with the Fort Belknap Tribal Council in 2019, and they began the grassland restoration project last year.

The council wants the project to assess and collect seeds from the reservation’s most sensitive plant populations. The plants are mostly used for medicinal purposes, and, except for sweetgrass, their names are kept private. Seeds from five other species were also collected: western wheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, junegrass, Sandberg bluegrass, and green needlegrass.