Culturally Modified Trees & Cedar Bark Baskets
by Aspen Decker
Broadcast 8.24 & 8.27.2021
In the mountains near Arlee at Agnes Vandenberg’s camp, near a loud, flowing stream, I made my first astkʷ sčłqʷá (cedar bark basket). As I peeled the bark away from the tree, the sound of the wet inner bark being torn off echoed through my ears. The freshly peeled bark and cedar aroma made me feel a sense of connection to my T̓at̓áyaqn (Bitterroot Salish) identity and our traditional ways of knowing. My elder, Patlik Pierre, explained that we must always offer gratitude to the cedar. If we want to continue having successful harvests, we must always show gratitude by giving an offering back for what is taken. It is a part of reciprocity and a holistic interconnectedness of all living things in the natural world.
Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) are the largest trees in Montana. They grow throughout wet low-elevation forests in the Northwestern United States. In Montana they can grow to nearly 150 feet high. Their leaves are one of the central winter foods for big game. Western red cedar has a peak production after 70-80 years and can live for 500 to 1,000 years—or more.
T̓at̓áyaqn people used the astkʷ (western red cedar) for dugout canoes, cedar bark baskets, string, fishing nets, smudge, and repellent. Cedar bark baskets, like the one I made at Agnes’s camp, are ideal for food storage because cedar is a natural bug and rodent repellent. This ensures that once the food is dried and placed into the cedar bark baskets, it will be kept safe for the winter months.
Cedar basket trees are an example of culturally modified trees, or CMTs, in this case identified by the large scars or strips of missing bark that the Salish peoples used to make their cedar bark baskets. CMTs reveal the behavior of Indigenous peoples and their gathering routines. Studying when and where CMT scars appeared helps uncover the Salish ecological knowledge systems and culture.
Dean Nicolai, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, completed his graduate thesis studying behavioral archaeology, Indigenous culture, and, specifically, how cedar basket trees contribute to understandings of the cultural landscape. Part of his study included using dendrochronology—using tree rings and growth patterns to date events and archaeological artifacts—to study the CMTs. He learned that cedar harvesting at one particular site occurred from 1962 to 1998. Further analysis revealed that there were overall similarities between tree diameter and basket length and width.
This study of culturally modified trees showed both where and when T̓at̓áyaqn were gathering, as well as the amount of bark they harvested in a given location. Salish peoples typically changed harvesting locations every few years to be sure they did not deplete the resources. This provided healing and regrowth time for the plants, berries, or roots that were gathered.
Recently, I made several bark baskets from red cedar, river birch, yellow birch, and quaking aspen. Working with each bark, I noticed the way that each bark varies. The red cedar made the sturdiest bark basket. It had many layers that I scraped off like a hide with a hide scraper, then pulled the remaining strips of bark away by hand. After finishing my large cedar bark basket, I went out and picked łox̣ʷłx̣ʷ (chokecherries) with my children. I gifted my son with my first and well-used cedar bark basket that I had made as a kid. As we gathered, I reflected on my childhood, when I participated in these same seasonal gatherings with my elders. Teaching this integral part of T̓at̓áyaqn culture to my children assures me that the next generation of Séliš children will know our ancestral ways of being.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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