Earth’s teachings

Cooperative effort to plant 500 cedar trees comes to fruition

Ethnobotanist Scott Herron begins an Ojibwa prayer ritual to bless 250 cedar trees before planting them at the Beaver Grove Agricultural Site in Chocolay Township on Monday. (Journal photos by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

The Zaagkii project, a partnership of the Cedar Tree Institute, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and Chocolay Township, planted 500 Northern White Cedar trees along with a selection of medicinal and ceremonial or sacred plants in Kawbawgam Park and the Beaver Grove Agricultural Site on Monday.

Cedar Tree Institute Director Jon Magnuson said this type of initiative, which began in 2010, is unique to the Upper Peninsula.

“The Upper Peninsula remains, in many ways, a sanctuary for a number of plant species that are critical for the survival of our food sources, many of which carry medicinal value. The Zaagkii Project-Zaagkii is an Anishinaabe word meaning “Gifts from the Earth” — is an unfolding initiative to support Upper Peninsula’s five American Indian tribes as they carry out this important mission.”

The full day of activities began with presentations from an ethnobotanist, a botanist, and an ecologist to initiative members in addition to participants from the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Hannahville Indian Community, Bay Mills Indian Community and Northern Michigan University’s Center for Native American Studies.

Kathleen Smith, right, offers tobacco smoke to Deanna Hadden during a prayer ritual prior to a ceremonial cedar tree planting at the Beaver Grove Agricultural Site in Chocolay Township on Monday. The Zaagkii project, which is a partnership of the Cedar Tree Institute, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and Chocolay Township, sponsored the native plants and pollinator protection initiative. (Journal photos by Lisa Bowers)

Presentation topics included the “The Eco Cultural Recovery of Plant Life in the Great Lakes Basin,” “Protecting our Future: The challenge to preserve genetic prototypes of blueberries, cranberries and wild leeks” and “Beauty and Balance: Wild Orchids in the Great Lakes Basin.”

Jan Schultz, a retired U.S. Forest Service botanist and presenter, said while botany is a concept that’s fairly easy to grasp, the bigger ecological picture tends to get lost.

“There’s also, we want it to be said, the significance ecologically and culturally. The natural world and the native plants in it,” Schultz said. “Especially in this day and age, we have so many issues outside. I think we tend to lose site of just what’s at stake. It’s big, really big. It’s worth protecting.”

Scott Herron, an ethnobotanist, and presenter on the project, led the group of volunteers in a traditional Anishinaabe song of blessing of the trees and the earth before a ceremonial planting.

Deanna Hadden, an invasive species coordinator of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources Department, said restoring native plant species to the area could affect the local ecosystem as a whole.

“The concept of putting native plants in there is really important,” Hadden said. “And every presentation we had this morning mentioned climate change and how much it’s affecting everything that we do. Using native plants rather than some hybrids means they are actually able to reproduce on their own. Having the native plants encourages the native pollinators and then we are getting back into more real wildlife from the area that can flourish.”

Herron said the idea of preserving native foliage came full circle for him during a recent trip to the Keweenaw with his 13-year-old son.

“I realized that when I was up there, on Copper Harbor the backbone of mother earth, was 18 years ago when I took my grandma, who was 80 then. She’s now 98. To be able to share that space and some of the stuff up there with my boy,” Herron said. “And that she, even in her hundred years of life has talked about how the Great Lakes ecosystems have changed, about how things have gone away in this region.”

Chocolay Township Planning Zoning Director Dale Throenle said the essence of the project is to recognize and preserve the history of the area.

“If you look at the history of the township, and the treaty line,” Throenle said, “This is a connection back to our roots.”

Magnuson said Monday’s activities are part of a culmination of the Zaagkii effort to reconnect with the earth.

“This project is part of a story of redemption, it is about giving back, connecting again. It’s about inviting native people to lead us to a whole new sacred understanding of our relationship with the earth,” Magnuson said.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is