Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project

By Amelia Blades Steward

A collaboration between Adkins Arboretum and the Washington College Food Initiative (WCFI), the Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project explores the importance of more than 20 native plants to the food, craftwork, and medicinal traditions of indigenous peoples of the Chesapeake region. The project seeks to encourage a paradigm shift from land as capital to land as sacred teacher, healer, and sustainer.

The Arboretum is located in the traditional homeland of the Choptank People, Algonquin-speaking Woodland Indians who lived along the Choptank River basin. Before European settlers arrived in the early 1600s, approximately 20,000 Choptank were living on the Eastern Shore. Less than 150 years later, these native people were driven to near extinction by illness, fighting, and forced migration.

Cedar Wax Wing on an Eastern Red Cedar drawn by botanical artist Anna Harding.

Jenny Houghton, Assistant Director of Adkins Arboretum, who spearheaded the project, comments, “I’ve just always been fascinated by native cultures. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the woods, and in my 20s I spent some time in Arizona and the Dakotas where I learned a little more about native cultures.

“When I started here at the Arboretum in my late 20s, the Youth Program Coordinator before me left the titles of field trips and one of the titles was ‘Native plants, Native people.’ I was intrigued by that and loved the connection and felt like you really can’t learn about native plants without honoring the first people on this land. So, I developed a lesson and we’ve run it many times.”

This Hickory nut, Carya ovata, was drawn by botanical artist Anna Harding.

In 2020, Jenny decided to partner with Washington College because the college was doing a lot of work with native plants and research into indigenous foraging. WCFI shares a passion for healthy food that honors our cultural, ecological, and ancestral heritage through such activities as fermentation, baking in an earth-fired oven, researching and using wild foods, sharing nutritional and culinary wellness expertise, and building soil to rejuvenate its efforts.

Shane Brill, Director of Sustainability and Regenerative Living at Washington College, agreed to research and write the 21 native plant profiles and created three videos delving further into the plant profile plants.

“We’re involved in our work to try to visualize what food sovereignty would look like for our bioregion. We are trying to understand where we fit in the context of climate change and how we can prepare our landscape for our descendants,” he comments.

“We look at a lot of ethnobotany books to study the interrelationship between people and plants and also do research on how these plants were used by indigenous peoples. An example of this is the cutleaf coneflower, which was a traditional food of the Cherokee Nation. It also provides a lot of wildlife habitat.”

Through the Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project, the Arboretum and the WCFI are striving to honor the wisdom of native peoples and their unique relationship with nature by sharing their ecological perspectives, history, and traditions. Ultimately, the project seeks to inspire a collective responsibility to shape our future by caring for the land that supports us.

Jenny Houghton, Kellen McCluskey, and Ginna Tiernan at the Arboretum created a webpage about indigenous people and a story map. During the pandemic, the story map was shared with schools as a resource to keep them engaged with the Arboretum. As a virtual ‘field trip’ designed for students and adults, the Indigenous Perspectives story map explores connections between the native Chesapeake landscapes and the Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland Indian periods. Each cultural period was marked by advances in technology as indigenous people adapted to their changing environment. How they adapted and their deep connections with nature are the themes of the story map.

Jenny states, “We also created self-guided activities where people can come to the Arboretum and see the plants we’re talking about. Jeff and Susan Coomer assisted with research for the self-guided walks. The next step is to update the field trip lesson plan for this project. I’d love to partner with Washington College again with their history department to get a little more place-based information about who lived here.”

She adds, “How we present the plants will appeal to different audiences. Self-guided family activities identify native plants in each of the Arboretum’s landscapes – the meadow, the forest, and the wetland. Our docents are trained in a variety of themes so they know their plants, but they present the same plant as how it fits into woodland architecture or how it influenced the journey on the Underground Railroad. It forms an organizing tool for presenting the plants. Because many people are not familiar with these plants, it’s also re-familiarizing people with what’s been growing for thousands of years.”

Daniel “Firehawk” Abbott, a member of the Eastern Shore’s Nanticoke People, provided invaluable input as a consultant on the project. “He presented these cultures as a great example of how we can adapt to changing climates. That’s why their technology changed because the Ice Age plants and animals were dying out and new animals were coming in. So, they’re a story of resiliency in the face of change, which is something we can all appreciate nowadays,” says Jenny.

Shane states, “Once people understand the stories and importance of these plants, it gives them a sense of purpose. Once they interact with them, they understand they’re part of a larger community of life. People at large can then have a greater experience of being alive.”

According to Ginna Tiernan, executive director of Adkins Arboretum, the project aligns with the vision of Adkins Arboretum that “inspires environmental stewardship, provides respite and healing, and celebrates natural and cultural diversity through the joy and wonder of the natural world. I think a lot of places are working on telling the story of the native people. I think our specific native plant native people connection is unique,” she adds.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities. For further information, visit or call 410- 634-2847. 

Botanical Art Exhibition

This winter, the Arboretum is sponsoring an art exhibition by the Botanical Art League of the Eastern Shore featuring the artwork of the 21 native plants featured in the Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project. The exhibition is organized by botanical artist Anna Harding, who co-founded the Botanical Art League of the Eastern Shore with fellow botanical artist Lee D’Zmura in 2021. The exhibition will be on display at the Arboretum in January and February 2023. The Art League hopes for the exhibition to then travel to Washington College.

Anna recalls, “In March of 2021, I was restless with COVID and how our lives had sort of shrunk. I have been a member of two art leagues and there are only two of us in these leagues who are botanical artists.  I felt like having taught at Adkins Arboretum and having taken classes there in botanical art, there were probably other people like me who weren’t in the art leagues, but still enjoying it and were interested in studying and developing their skills in the botanical art style. Lee and I then co-founded the Botanical Art League of the Eastern Shore, of which I am now the coordinator.”

“Three months after we had our first meeting in June of 2021, I learned about the Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective Project. People who came to that first Art League meeting said, ‘I want to be inspired to do my artwork.’”

This was the impetus for Anna to bring the project idea to the group to devote itself to. Because she was already on the committee that reviews work submitted for the Arboretum’s six annual exhibitions, she thought the Art League’s project would be great for the Arboretum as well.

“The project will get people to do art and put their stuff on the wall and feel good about what they’re capable of, but it will also enhance this project’s collaboration with Washington College. Botanical art draws you in to notice the detailed aspects of each plant. We should have at least 25 or 30 pieces of art in the exhibition by 10 to 12 botanical artists. Media includes graphite, colored pencil or watercolor,” she explains. “The project is very rich and eye-opening, educational, and informative.”

Anna, who was an art minor in college and had been a ceramic artist for 25 years, started taking botanical art classes at the Arboretum nine years ago. At the time, she was in the Maryland Master Naturalist program. She credits one class with nurturing the other. She showed her botanical art at an exhibition at the Arboretum over the summer months, which featured threatened and endangered species that she created from online images.

“Walking around the grounds, it’s a lot of green leaves. But, when you isolate a piece of a plant or a tree and bring it into focus through a magnifying glass, you can be astounded. One of the quotes I used in my gallery talk for my show in July was the quote by poet Mary Oliver who said, ‘Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’ And that’s what I feel like my botanical art does. I’m paying attention. It’s all astonishing, especially when you look closely. And then through my artwork, I tell about it.”

The Arboretum’s upcoming show is not juried. Any member of the Botanical Art League of the Eastern Shore who submits a piece will be included in the show. For further information, visit

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