Sacred Cedar – The Tree of Life

There is absolutely no doubt that the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia are extraordinarily beautiful. They are full of life and contain massive old-growth trees that are hundreds of years old. If you’ve ever walked through one you know how quaint and peaceful they are as you’re surrounded by greenery and inhaling a large breath of fresh air.

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British Columbia coastal temperate rainforest. Photo: David Tomes.

What you may not have considered while strolling through these forests are the archaeological treasures that they contain. These beautiful and rich rainforests have provided a means of life for aboriginal communities that live on the west coast of British Columbia for thousands of years, long before European settlers came to North America. Specifically, the western red cedar is one of the most culturally important trees to indigenous people as its bark was used in almost every aspect of their lives. The western red cedar would provide most of the raw materials they would need to meet their basic needs. From making cribs for their newborns, textiles, clothing, shelters, canoes, to coffins for the deceased. The western red cedar was called the “tree of life” because aboriginal communities depended so heavily on it.

Western red cedars were typically stripped of their outer bark, exposing the underlying layer. A horizontal cut was made through the bark near the base of the tree, the bark was pulled back away from the tree, which would then leave the upper end tapered to a point. The scars left on these large trees would run the length of the tree, in a long, vertically-stretched triangular shape, tapering off at great heights. This wouldn’t kill the tree, so it could continue to grow with these permanent markings on them. This allowed the trees to be dated to when the bark was stripped.

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Culturally modified western red cedar trees with their outer bark removed. Photo: Lotus Johnson.

Culturally modified trees (CMT) are trees that are intentionally modified by indigenous peoples as a part of their culture or tradition. We can see CMTs have dated back at least 3000 years in coastal British Columbia as indicated by the markings. CMTs help aboriginal communities establish claims to their rights as these markings can provide proof that land and resources were used by their communities far before any written record existed. In a way, these CMTs are helping aboriginal communities preserve their way of life and access to critical resources.

Next time you’re enjoying the beauty of British Columbia’s coastal temperate rainforest, keep an eye out for the fascinating archaeological treasures that exist in these forests. These historical forests provide a way of life for countless living organisms, ranging from microscopic to large. Rainforests are living museums that preserve history and tell a beautiful story.

One of the many aboriginal communities that depend on western red cedar are the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Learn more about who they are here: https://huuayaht.org/.

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