While walking in Island forests recently, you may have noticed a peculiar sight of cedar trees missing a single strip of bark from their trunks.
This is due to a long lasting tradition in First Nations groups on the Island, who view cedar trees as a vital resource.
The importance of cedar trees was highlighted in a recent video shared online by the Sooke Region Museum, where Jeff Welch and Thor Gauti of T’Sou-ke Nation showed a demonstration of cedar stripping.
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.
“Canoes are one of the larger things we would carve from a red cedar tree,” Welch said.
“We also cut planks from the red cedar tree to make our big houses. Thick plank big house walls, with planks on the roof is the very old way of doing it. They last for so long making them that way. Modern material is not so good, but it is a lot less expensive.”
Before stripping the bark, Gauti and Welch gave 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,” Welch said.
Traditionally, stone tools, which can be found in a Sooke Region Museum display, would be used to chip into the bark, but during the demonstration they used a hatchet.
Gauti made a cut near the base of the tree that was about the width of his hand, peeled the bark up the tree as far as it could reach, and then tore it off. Welch said they will only ever take one strip off each tree, 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, adding the only time they would take a whole tree is when it’s for larger things like homes or canoes.
After removing the strip of bark, Gauti removed the dry, older, outer bark, so that it can be easily rolled up and saved for later when he decides to work on it.
He said the cedar tree 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 clear the respiratory system.
Both Gauti and Welch work in the Sooke School District, educating youth about traditional First Nations’ culture.
Welch travels to various schools and universities doing presentations, which he said have grown exponentially over the years, covering more topics as he learns more about his culture.
“I started out just talking about drumming. Over the 10 years, learning our traditions from my family, as well as other aboriginal role models in the school district that I work with, we all pick up and learn from each other that way. There is always something to learn in our culture,” Welch said.
“I’ve made it my goal, as long as I’m alive to learn as much as I can and to teach it to our youth. I am always learning and I will never stop.”
Welch hinted that an upcoming video will show how to work with the bark once it’s been stripped, but did not note when the video would be released. For more information on the Sooke Region Museum, please go online to www.sookeregionmuseum.ca.