The article “A Transgenic American Chestnut Tree is Coming. Who Is It For?” by Maya Kapoor, first appearing September 12, 2023, was co-published by Native News Network, which delivers important daily news that affects the lives of Native Americans nationwide, and Grist, a nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice, and solutions.
The following quotations are excerpts from the article, which can be read in full on the Native News Network website. Headers and introductory blurbs have been added.
The American Chestnut Tree
The article provides a history of the American chestnut tree, which used to grow across what is now the eastern United States and into southeastern Canada and describes its relationship with Indigenous people. For millennia the trees, once numbering in the billions, were harvested by Indigenous people and provided food and habitat for a plethora of animals. The tree’s population was decimated by logging and a deadly fungal blight brought on by European colonization.
The article also discusses how the US government is reviewing deregulating a transgenic version of the Chestnut Tree that is engineered to withstand the blight. Deregulation would allow the tree to be grown without restriction. The article sheds light on the fact that “For years, controversy has swirled around the ethics of using novel biotechnology for species conservation.”
Neil Patterson Jr
The article focuses on Neil Patterson Jr, now in his 40s, who grew up on the Tuscarora Nation Reservation just south of Lake Ontario near Niagara Falls and previously directed the Tuscarora Environment Program. He is currently the assistant director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. He posed the question:
What good is bringing back a species without also restoring its traditional relationships with the Indigenous peoples who helped it flourish?
The American Chestnut Foundation
The article also discusses the views of the nonprofit American Chestnut Foundation that, for the past four decades, has been the driving force behind the chestnut’s restoration:
…the Foundation website’s history of the tree begins during colonial times, suggesting a romantic notion of a precolonial wilderness that ignores the intensive agroforestry that Indigenous peoples practiced. By engineering vanished species to survive harms brought on by colonization without addressing those harms, people avoid having to make hard decisions about how most of us live on the landscape today.
Who gets to care for plants and animals?
The article also discusses Bill Powell, who was a colleague of Patterson’s, working for the same university and directing the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project. The article states that Powell stressed that, if the chestnut tree is deregulated, Indigenous nations will not have to grow the engineered trees on their lands if they do not want to. The Campaign to STOP GE Trees does not agree with this logic – deregulating the trees means they can be released into the wild and stopping the spread of trees that can live 100s of year may prove impossible.
The article also stated that Powell
acknowledged that this does not reassure those who think of Indigenous land not in colonial terms, meaning within reservation boundaries, but instead in terms of treaty rights or cultural practices on historic tribal lands. Indigenous nations, including members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy such as the Tuscarora Nation, have long argued that even when they ceded land to colonial governments, they did not cede their rights to access and care for plants and animals on those lands.
Who gets to make decisions?
The debate about blight-resistant chestnuts isn’t really about trees or even genetic engineering; it’s about who gets to make decisions on the land. Conservation is framed in European cultures as an objective goal, but it’s a worldview that other people may not share, explained Katie Barnhill-Dilling, a North Carolina State University social scientist who researches environmental decision-making. “Some of the people I’ve talked to from the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force would contest that humans are here to accept the gifts as they are now,” she said.
Indigenous Connections to the Chestnut Tree
The trees dropped an avalanche of chestnuts to the forest floor each year. According to historian Donald Edward Davis, people burned low fires that dried the nuts and killed off chestnut weevils. By suppressing other plants, fires helped the chestnut trees spread, and the nuts became staples of Indigenous diets — a reliable source of nutrition that people stored in earthen silos or pounded into flour for chestnut bread and other foods. The human-tended groves also fed animals such as elk, deer, bison, bears, passenger pigeons, panthers, wolves, and foxes. Chestnut logjams in streams created deep, clear pockets of water where fish could thrive.
European Settler Connections to the Chestnut Tree
European settlers forced Indigenous peoples along the chestnut’s range from much of their homelands, severing access to plants and animals they’d long interacted with. Meanwhile, settlers cut down chestnuts for many reasons — to clear space for towns and farms; to build fence posts, telegraph poles, and railroads; or just to gather the nuts more easily.
The Importance of Grieving and Learning from Mistakes
The author also stated some of Patterson’s views:
By creating a genetically engineered chestnut, Patterson argues, scientists are avoiding the part of the cycle where people grieve and learn from their mistakes.
On the timescale of Haudenosaunee history, the losses still feel new. “It’s been 100 years — but that’s not long,” Patterson observed. Then he reconsidered. “That’s long for research scientists, or a plant technology innovator. It’s too long.”
To Patterson, what’s not being restored — treaty rights to access and care for plants and animals on the landscape — is telling.
“If you want to restore this, like, ‘primordial’ forest, don’t you also want to restore our relationship with that forest?” he asked. “Like — what’s your relationship to a transgenic chestnut?
The Ability to Choose
The article notes how Patterson was assured by scientists that people would be able to tell the engineered and non-engineered trees apart through genetic testing:
“It was this privileged standpoint, which is, ‘Well, technology will figure it out for us.’ But it’s not as if I’m going to hand that technology to my son or nephews or my grandsons before they go off to gather,” Patterson said. “It just seemed like it was so simple to them.” He wondered why the non-Indigenous scientists and conservationists had been able to plant this grove on state land in the first place, when his nation was largely prevented from accessing or caring for plants there.
He and his wife, who also attended the trip, were struck by a realization: If the federal government deregulated the blight-resistant trees, letting their pollen float freely through the air, this trip might be one of the last times they could gather wild American chestnuts with certainty.