The Fingerprints of Our Ancestors

Shaped trees are reshaping the fight to save the ancient forests

World Reports

Archie Robinson, hereditary chief of the Kitasoo First Nation at Klemtu - a tiny, economically starved community in the Great Bear Rainforest, midway up the coast of British Columbia - calls them “culture trees.” The Professional Archeological Association of British Columbia (BC) employs the much drier term, “culturally modified trees” (CMTs). I call them “shaped trees.”

Whatever one calls them, CMTs have emerged as one of the most strategic elements in the complex battle to preserve the temperate rainforest ecosystems of western North America. These lands - most of which remain unceded by Canada’s indigenous peoples - remain the focus of envy, lust and economic conniving by multinational logging and energy giants.

A succession of BC provincial governments have routinely caved in to the demands of timber giants like Interfor, Timber West and Weyerhaeuser, threatening the region’s unique ecosystem and the salmon, grizzlies and Spirit Bears that inhabit it. The discovery of the “shaped trees” may change all that.

CMTs are living archeological artifacts - trees that, at some time, were utilized by First Nation residents as a source of fiber, bark, wood, food or medicine and which retain characteristic harvesting scars. Red cedars and yellow cedars generally remain alive and healthy despite successive harvests of bark or the removal of entire planks pried from living trees. Spruce, hemlock and other species whose edible inner bark is harvested for food also generally remain alive, contributing to the health of the forest ecosystems.

Aboriginally logged trees, used to manufacture canoes, house posts and totem poles, are also considered CMTs. Together, CMTs living and dead define the extent of traditional First Nation lands. CMTs have proven invaluable in resolving disputes between First Nations and timber, mining and oil-drilling interests.

These trees stand as an enduring symbol of the ecologically sensitive and deep spiritual bond between First Nation people and forests. The presence of CMTs in the Great Bear Rainforest is proof that this “pristine wilderness” was, in fact, a carefully tended forest garden where, for untold centuries, people worked alongside the bear and the salmon, gathering medicinal plants, food and fiber in a carefully balanced exchange of resources.

The CMT Campaign Takes Root
The campaign toward recognizing CMTs as living proof of First Nation tenure was launched in 1982 on behalf of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation (Kwakintl) of Hanson Island, which forms the southwest gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest.

Logging giant Crown Zellerback had begun blasting and bulldozing a network of logging roads in preparation for clearcutting much of the island’s forests. The Hanson Island CMTs first gained legal recognition after an archeological study commissioned by the U’mista Cultural Society determined that Crown Zellerbach’s logging would destroy 14 CMT sites. The discovery stalled the company’s logging plans.

In 1987, an archaeologist hired by a logging company mapped out 76 CMTs. The timber firm declared these sites to be insignificant and, by 1990, the province was on the verge of permitting renewed logging.

Unbeknownst to the logging firms or the provincial authorities, a small group of Earth Embassy volunteers had begun an independent survey of the Hanson Island CMTs. In 1984, with the blessing of Kwakwaka’wakw families who held traditional land claims on the island, myself and several other volunteers quietly established the CMT Research Camp in the center of the island, far from prying eyes.

By 1990, our team had identified and mapped some 1,000 CMTs. After we provided the data to the ‘Namgis First Nation, the logging was stalled once more.

In 1994, Timber West, a spin-off of New Zealand logging giant Fletcher Challenge, presented a 20-year logging plan with some 30 proposed cutblocks. Timber West said it would try and avoid felling CMTs wherever possible.

Established conservation watchdogs, under severe pressure from logging interests, were beginning to downplay the importance of CMTs. I decided that it was necessary to prepare and publish a definitive book documenting the locations and illustrating the importance of the region’s “shaped trees.” This required living in the rainforest full-time for the next four years.

Life in the rainforest was not easy. Tents collapsed under wet snow and volunteers endured endless gales, storms and hurricane-force winds. One night, a black bear burst through the walls of one tent. Food supplies often dwindled down to brown rice and fish. Coffee was a luxury.

By late 1997, our research team had located some 1,878 CMTs. In early 1998, we presented the first copies of Shaped Cedars and Cedar Shaping: A Guidebook to Identifying, Documenting, Appreciating and Learning from Culturally Modified Trees to the coastal First Nations. Local representatives of the BC Ministry of Forests, however, were incensed. They threatened to burn down our research camp. Only the prompt intervention of the ‘Namgis First Nation stopped the camp from being torched.

The David Suzuki Foundation, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and Valhalla Society subsequently funded a series of CMT workshops in the living classrooms of Hanson Island and, by 2001, some 20 First Nations researchers had received training. CMT studies have now been conducted at 50 sites throughout the Great Bear Rainforest and the interior of British Columbia.

The ‘Namgis First Nation carried out a systematic survey of 11 of the 30 cutblocks proposed by Timber West and identified 1,527 CMTs. In April 2001, the BC government declared Hanson Island a “protected area” and put all logging plans on hold.

The future of Hanson Island is now in the hands of the First Nation people who hope to promote eco-heritage tourism and ecologically sensitive sustainable development. ‘Namgis artists are again sustainably harvesting red cedar bark, allowing the trees to heal and grow so that future generations may return to these same trees for bark in the centuries to come.

Native Economic Development Officer Ken Innes notes the significance of the CMTs. “These trees of life offer our children the opportunity to learn about their own history and culture and how they are linked to the past.”

To date, more than 3,000 CMTs have been studied on Hanson Island. We estimate that the entire island holds more than 12,000 shaped trees. More than 20 kilometers (12 miles) of access trails now make it possible to marvel at a living record of Kwakwaka’wakw sustainable forestry spanning 1,300 years.

Hanson Island’s forest gardens hold a lesson that every child should experience if we are to develop a society capable of living appropriately with the finite gifts of the natural world.

Anthropologist David Garrick [PO Box 84, Coal Harbour, British Columbia, Canada V0N 1K0] is working on several books about CMT’s and old-growth forests. Donations to support CMT research may be sent to Garrick c/o the Journal’s Green Pages Fund [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133].

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.