We commonly know it as a native tree species that embellishes our beautiful Vancouver Island forests, but the meaning of cedar trees branches far beyond what meets the eye.
Cedars have played an integral role in many aspects of coastal First Nations communites’ lives, including ties to spiritual beliefs and ceremonial life, as well as being a vital natural resource.
Last year, Jeff Welch and Thor Gauti of T’Sou-ke Nation showed a demonstration of cedar stripping and highlighted the tree’s importance.
Welch, a local knowledge keeper, said the cedar tree is traditionally known as the “Tree of Life” in Coast Salish culture, and is used in a multitude of ways. Once the bark is stripped, it can be used to carve masks, make clothing, weave baskets and hats, and even be used to make fishing line.
Cedar trees can also be used as a medicine by boiling the leaves into a tea, or by putting the leaves in hot water and breathing in the steam, which can help support the respiratory system.
There are two types of cedar species that grow in British Columbia: the western red cedar, which, according to the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) First Nations and Indigenous Studies website, can grow up to 70 metres tall and live for 1,000 years, and the yellow cedar, which typically stands between 20 to 40 metres tall.
“Coast Salish peoples have a creation story that explains the origins of cedar. According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a red cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people,” the UBC Indigenous Foundations website states.
“The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for yellow cedar. According to their stories, yellow cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, yellow cedar trees are found on the slopes of sub-alpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.”
When stripping the bark from a cedar tree, Welch said they will only ever take one strip, so that the trees continue to live a healthy life afterwards.
“It’s important that we do this sustainably. We only take one strip from it for the life of that tree, so that it will forever only have a minor wound to heal, instead of a huge wound that could kill the tree,” said Welch, who pointed out the importance of giving thanks to their ancestors through the form of an offering.
“In our tradition, if we don’t give thanks to our ancestors who may live in these trees, we could get cursed. So it’s important we leave a gift such as tobacco, sage, or sweetgrass to acknowledge or thank the spirit of the tree.”
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