Indigenous peoples have long utilized trees for many reasons. In particular, cedar trees provided materials for shelter, clothing, bedding, food gathering and preparation, transportation, and cultural and spiritual activities.
It is revered as the “tree of life” because nearly every part is of value - wood, bark, pitch, branches, and roots.
Culturally modified trees are living trees that have been visibly altered or modified for usage in their cultural traditions. Wherever there are or have been forest-dwelling Indigenous Peoples - North America, Australia, Scandinavia - there will be, or have been culturally modified trees. They are of immense cultural and spiritual significance to the descendants of those who came before.
There are examples in Northern Ontario and three culturally modified tree locations were identified this past summer. Two are on the nastawgan the system of ways or the traditional routes for travel through the waterways and overland through onigum - portages in the Temagami wilderness. Another was at a ceremonial site within Nagagamisis Provincial Park.
There are not many published resources on culturally modified trees. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. has authored an excellent overview and permission for the following was granted by Ally Pascuzzi, the organization’s Learning Experience Coordinator.
She said, the wood, which is relatively soft, lightweight, and splits cleanly and readily along the grain, was ideal for the stone and bone cutting and carving tools used prior to European contact.
“In BC, groups of culturally modified trees are classified as 'forest utilization sites.' If one or more culturally modified trees in a forest utilization site can be determined as modified before 1846, then the trees in that group are protected by the Heritage Conservation Act (1966)," Pascuzzi said.
'Modified' means just that - the trees are altered through sustainable harvesting techniques that have been practiced and passed down through generations since time immemorial.
Culturally modified trees are recognizable by the scars remaining from the removal of bark, planks or test holes. Generally, material harvested impacted no more than one-third of the circumference of a tree, which allowed the tree to keep growing.
Some trees display a series of scars indicating material was harvested more than once, but with decades between harvests. Leaving enough of the tree intact to heal and continue to grow is a testament to the depth of knowledge about forests and ecology.
“They are also of legal significance. Because the age of a tree can be precisely recorded, culturally modified trees are proof of traditional, long-term occupancy and use of forests, so are powerful testaments to the strength of claim when Indigenous rights are under discussion,” said Pascuzzi.
Culturally modified trees
Culturally modified trees have become important living archaeological artifacts that have provided us with a window into how Indigenous peoples utilized and modified the forest as well as clues about the distribution of Native peoples.
Bill Weaver is a retired family doctor turned archaeologist with an interest in Anishinaabe pictographs and star charts. Find the 2015 book Muzzinabikon – An Introduction to the Sacred co-written with Kathy Kujala.
“For millennia the Metis, Inuit, and First Nation Peoples have used and modified trees for their own purposes whether it be as trail markers or for shelter, food, fuel, medicines, various tools and implements, ceremony, teachings, and spiritual guidance and wisdom.
“Even the great 'Tree of Life' with its roots firmly planted in Mother Earth extends its branches upward through Hole-in-the-Sky (the Pleiades star cluster) and into the Sky World binding together the four elements and the four spheres of the Anishinaabe world (a pictograph at Fairy Point represents this great white pine-cedar) and connects their current home to where they originated.
“As our older 'Brothers' and 'Grandfathers' in the Creation stories these Tree Beings have acquired and carry a great deal of traditional knowledge. They vary widely over the Canadian landscape depending on the region, the availability of tree species, and the needs of the local peoples.
"As living artifacts, they are recognized as both culturally and ecologically valuable features of the landscape that offer insight into the interactions between humans and the forest environment. A lack of knowledge means culturally modified trees are poorly understood and oft misidentified which leads to poor recognition, documentation, and protection.”
From a traditional perspective, culturally modified trees hold an important spiritual value connecting the Earth, the Ancestors, and the People.
“Trees play important roles in various Anishinaabe oral traditions, ceremonies, and teachings," says the book.
"Often, in the ‘walking out’ ceremony, parents will bury the placenta/umbilical cord amongst tree roots to bind and ground their infants to Aki (Earth).
"The concept that trees are living beings and possess ‘manitou’, ‘medicine’, or ‘spirit’ is identified in the Haudenossaune ‘False Masks’ carved into living trees in Southern Ontario. Culturally modified trees also acted as a valuable resource used in a great many capacities from Tikinagan (cradle board) construction, to canoe building, birch bark shakers, fish net making, clothing, planks and roofing in shelter building, fire starting, paddles, bowls and ladles, as a food source, and for medicines.”
In recent years, culturally modified trees have taken on an important legal role used as evidence and proof of Indigenous occupation which assists in substantiating native land claims and titles.
“The majority of the Great Lakes basin culturally modified trees are lobstick/trail marker trees, bark peel trees, resin/gum trees, plank trees, and ‘medicine’ trees (including those used for sustenance like the important Sugar Bush stands).
“Perhaps the best known culturally modified tree in the Great Lakes region is betula papyrifera, the white/paper birch. It has been used since the beginning of time in a variety of ways for canoe building, container making, fire starting (high resin bark), moose callers, and coverings for traditional shelters and Jiisakidawin (shaking tents).
One of the largest documented concentrations of culturally modified trees in Northern Ontario is located in Nagagamisis Provincial Park near Hornepayne where an estimated 30 to 100 trees have been documented since 1999.
“These are predominantly Eastern white cedar trees. It is clear that culturally modified trees are underrecognized and poorly documented in the Great Lakes basin, and not a topic that many archaeologists, forestry people, or lay people understand and appreciate the importance of.”
This lack of knowledge has resulted in culturally modified trees being poorly understood and often misidentified which leads to poor recognition and documentation and therefore poor protection.
“No dedicated and systematic research has looked at the surrounding lands for the culturally modified trees that would have been used in the canoe building process.
"This includes the ‘canoe-grade’ white birch used as the skin of the canoe, cedar and ash used for the ribs and gunwales, spruce and leatherwood used as binding materials in the construction, and of course, Spruce and Pine gum/sap/pitch used for sealing joints," Weaver said.
"When decisions are made on forestry practices here in Ontario (unlike those in British Columbia where there are protective laws for culturally modified trees) it would seem prudent to be able to correctly identify these trees and provide them with legal protections.”
Culturally modified trees are one example of a bio-cultural value that can provide a window into past landscape use as well as a physical link between people and their ancestors.
These values remain critically important today and for future generations. On the back roads, if you have the opportunity to walk in an ancient forest or along the nastawgan be on the lookout for culturally modified trees – another way to learn.