SEATTLE — On a promontory above Puget Sound, a Douglas fir with arms bent at right angles stands above a quiet cove, where shellfish would have been gathered, long before this place was settled by newcomers.
This tree was deliberately shaped by generations of hands into its current form, to mark what was here for countless years: rich clam beds, and a gathering site valued by a community. The tree speaks without words of what and who was here before.
Modified trees like this one are found all over the Northwest, in towns, along highways, in forests, even housing developments.
Each is so much more than a tree. Modified trees are a connection interweaving generations of the region’s first people tightly as a cedar basket.
“It is the sacred fingerprint of the ancestors that shaped this place,” said Sam Barr, a Samish tribal citizen and tribal historic preservation office supervisor for the Stillaguamish Tribe.
Another tree, a cedar near the tree on the promontory over the cove, is elaborately trained to grow with branches at 90 degree angles low on its trunk that also were cut and recut so the branches would fork, and then fork again. The result is an elaborate candelabra. This is a marker tree, Barr said, that may have denoted the village that was here — today a housing development. It may also have indicated the direction toward the confluence of the deltas of the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers that also fork and refork in their riverine push to the sea.
Such trees invite people to think expansively about what these trees are, Barr said. They aren’t just modified plants, but windows into a landscape and a culture, a whole way of thinking and living. “People don’t think about it much, but we truly are living in an Indigenous garden, from which the gardeners have been forcibly removed,” Barr said. “The entire landscape around the Pacific Northwest was carefully managed and stewarded by Indigenous hands. And there are traces of this everywhere.”
Trees were stripped for bark for weaving, trees were planked for building materials, trees were made to serve as indicators of everything from trails, to a water source, a rich area for harvest, village or sacred place. But one thing they have in common is the time and intention and skill that went into this practice.
Trees are slow growing, and for a marker tree, it takes multiple generations of a family to curate it.
The Seattle Times is not identifying the locations of some of the trees mentioned in this story to protect culturally significant areas.
The presence of modified trees all over the landscape today, and continued traditional use of cedar in particular, binds tribes up and down the West Coast, from small remote communities such as the Nuchatlaht and Ma’amtagila peoples on Vancouver and Nootka islands, to the most urban tribes of Puget Sound. The Snoqualmie Tribe recently identified and the state registered as an archaeological site a modified tree in a lot being cleared for new homes in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle.
Modified trees “… remind us that our ancestors were physically present in this landscape for countless generations,” Steven Moses, director of archaeology and historic preservation for the Snoqualmie Tribe, wrote in an email.
Gail White Eagle, a Muckleshoot master weaver, said she always looks forward to this moment, as she paused the tribal van at a yellow gate that opens to a forest road in the foothills of Mount Rainier. She was about to enter Tomanamus Forest, 105,000 acres of forest land in King, Pierce and Lewis counties purchased by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in 2013.
“It is our forever home,” she said, passing through the gate.
The forest is in part of the territory ceded by the tribe in its treaty with the U.S. in 1855. Taking the forest back into tribal ownership was an act of healing, White Eagle said. Every tribal member can request a key to the gate, unlike at other forests that used to be theirs, now owned by other governments, corporations and individuals.
A soft misty rain was falling as she walked into the forest, looking for trees from which she had harvested bark the previous spring. Eventually the cedar she was looking for stood out for the scar in its bark.
She explained the harvesting process, which always begins with asking permission before taking anything. She gives an explanation to the tree that its bark will be put to good use. And she often leaves a gift at the tree’s base, such as a bit of tobacco, sage or smoked fish. It’s a gesture of thanks and reciprocity in the relationship she holds with this tree, and this forest.
White Eagle put her hand gently on the healing bark scar, and explained she is careful never to take a piece wider than two hands’ length. She chooses trees only big and robust enough for her to hug. And she pulls bark only in spring, when trees are full of sap, making the harvest easier on her and the tree. A tree can be harvested multiple times over many generations of users, if the harvest is done correctly.
Tree wounds that penetrate bark damage the cambium layer, vascular tissue that is vital to movement of water and nutrients in a tree. The tree will seal and close the wound, compartmentalizing it with healing lobes to cover it and prevent rot.
As long as a tree is not girdled — cut entirely around its circumference, severing all the vascular tissue — it will continue to live.
Sometimes modified trees are recorded by tribes and government land managers as archaeological sites. But much more often, these trees are known only to the families that use them.
Jacob Earnshaw is an independent archaeologist based in Victoria, B.C., who works to find and register modified trees as archaeological sites. His work has been entered as evidence in a right and title case in B.C. with the Nuchatlaht First Nation, who are working to prove their long presence on the northern half of Nootka Island on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, to regain control of lands they never ceded. That case has not yet been resolved.
Earnshaw has documented more than 1,000 years of cutting and pulling bark for harvest on Vancouver Island. The trees show management of these forests, Earnshaw said, by the island’s first people to protect what was an exhaustible resource. “What we are looking at is woodland management by these people who were thought of as hunter-gatherers,” he said.
That term is a myth, says Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies and School of Resource and Environmental Management Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. The first people didn’t just pick up what they needed here and there; they managed and cultivated their land and waters just as they do today — and evidence of their ancestors’ practices persists in the landscape.
Armstrong teamed up with Earnshaw and other researchers to publish a 2022 paper that described forest gardens on Vancouver Island with still-evident remnants of cultivation, transplanting and all the other usual horticultural arts. The gardens were just part of the associated archaeological evidence of long prior use, including clam gardens, village sites, shell middens and trees in the nearby forest bearing scars of harvest for bark and other needs.
Their work shows that far from an unpeopled wilderness, the Northwest Pacific Coast was a managed and stewarded place for thousands of years. “With the mere fact of people being in the same place for millennia, there is going to be some management, an ethos of stewardship,” Armstrong said.
Rande Cook is a carver, artist and hereditary chief for the Ma’amtagila First Nation, whose people’s territory lies along the Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.
Bark scars on trees in Ma’amtagila territory interweave their people today with prior generations. “They mark our connection and lineage to the land,” Cook said. This is an interaction far beyond mere use; harvesters through the generations develop a relationship with the trees they rely on, Cook said.
Cedars on both sides of the border are called the “Tree of Life” in Coast Salish cultures, for the tree’s many uses. Planks were pulled for housing, “others we call the clothing department — the smaller trees where bark was pulled for clothing. The deep forest, that was the industrial area, the big monster ones, those were for canoes,” Cook said.
With the exception of those cut down for canoes, trees were repeatedly harvested for bark, planks and other uses. “For thousands of years, that was our method: Leave a tree standing, it will still contribute and provide. That is where the value was,” Cook said.
Carrying on tradition
In a pile at the base of the tree are the pieces of outer bark White Eagle left behind when she harvested from this cedar last spring. She always leaves the outer bark when she harvests to let it go back to the soil. It is only the soft inner bark she takes for weaving, pulling it apart from the outer bark and folding it into a bale.
A soak overnight in water rehydrates and softens it to a fragrant, supple material that can be worked by hand. White Eagle keeps bark she harvests for herself, gifts it to elders who can no longer make it into the woods for harvest and brings it to the weaving class she teaches on the reservation.
Weaving Wednesdays are all-comers events, with some students just starting out, and others bringing a lifetime of knowledge. With hands delicate and strong, Marie Johnson, 86, splits cedar into thin strips as White Eagle looks on. Johnson grew up on the tribe’s reservation in the 1950s in a cabin with no running water, heated with a wood stove. That was common on the reservation then. “Some of the homes had dirt floors,” Johnson said. Over her long lifetime, she has watched her tribe transform to the point today of being able to share prosperity with others — the true sign of wealth in Coast Salish cultures.
Amid all that change, cultural traditions such as weaving with cedar are what anchor her and her people, and define who they are, Johnson said. Asked what she most wants people to know about cedar bark weaving, she cries happy tears, sharing what to her seems like a miracle. “That it still survives.”
Donny Stevenson, vice chair of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, said weaving cedar bark for his tribe today is not only an art, but a metaphor for the preservation of community through the practice of cultural traditions and resource conservation.
“It gives you the context of not only the proud tradition which you are part of, but I think also the legacy which you have a responsibility to maintain,” Stevenson said.
“It really does speak to so many of the underlying teachings about who we are as a people and where we come from.”