Native Americans and Trees
Every Thanksgiving season, people give thanks for various aspects of their lives, but how often do we remember to thank nature for the gifts it has given us? In this, we might take a lesson from our Native American brethren who have been expressing their gratitude for nature — specifically trees — for centuries. Exploring the traditions of two tribes and their respective trees — one that hails from the Pacific Northwest and the other from the mid-Atlantic — offers us a glimpse into a rich history in which trees played a major role.
The western redcedar is a tall and sturdy tree — reaching 150-200 feet in height, with a cone-shaped crown. Its dense branches are arching and pendulous, and they fan out to provide protection from the elements. In fact, one Native American word for this tree means “dry underneath.” It is also the broadest tree in the northwest and one of the most long-lived conifers. Its buttressed base spans two to eight feet in diameter, and if undisturbed, it can easily live to be more than 1,000 years old. Its historical range overlapped with that of the Northwest Coast Indians, who occupied the land in what is now Oregon and Washington.
While light and malleable, its wood is also one of the most durable in the world. It contains a natural preservative that is toxic to decay-causing fungi, which surprisingly increases in concentration with age. It’s also exceptionally aromatic. If sealed properly, a western redcedar’s wood can retain its odor for more than a century, repelling moths and other pests. Moreover, it’s beautiful. It comes as no surprise, then, that the western redcedar became a “cornerstone of Northwest Coastal Indian culture”— so much so that these Native Americans call themselves “People of the Cedar.”
In traditional Northwest Coastal Indian culture, every part of this tree has a designated use — from shelter, transportation and weapons to tools, clothing and art. Coastal tribes used its wood to construct massive post-and-beam houses, spectacular totem poles, dramatic dance masks and extraordinary dugout canoes. In fact, the western redcedar is so well known for this particular use that it is often referred to as the “canoe cedar.” They wove its inner bark into patterned mats, plied it into rope and worked it to make water-repellent clothing. And from its root fiber, they wove watertight baskets. For all these products, the Northwest Coast Indians came to refer to the cedar as “Tree of Life” and “Life Giver.”
Its purposes, however, extended beyond the material realm. For northwestern tribes, cedar was and remains strongly associated with prayer, healing and protection against disease. In House Blessing Ceremonies, its boughs were brushed through the air and believed to cleanse the home’s interior. Various parts of the tree were burned as incense for the purpose of purification, driving out negative energy and drawing in good influences. Pieces of the tree were also carried in medicine pouches to ward of sickness.
The traditional lifestyle of the Northwest Coast Indians was intimately bound to the western redcedar, for they depended on the versatile tree for their material, spiritual and medicinal needs. They regarded the tree and its spirit as sacred, believing deeply in its powers, and expressed their gratitude accordingly. They gathered in groves of these ancient trees for ceremonies, retreat and quiet contemplation and honored downed trees with elaborate offerings and prayers.
While tribes such as the Northwest Coast Indians are known to revere whole species of trees, the Lenape Indians, also known as the Delaware Indians, proclaim a special connection to a single tree, aptly named the Sacred Oak. This particular tree lives in the Oley Valley of Pennsylvania and is a former national champion Chinkapin oak. Last measured in 1977, it stands at 84 feet tall, with a circumference of nearly 20 feet and crown spread of 120 feet. It is estimated to be about 500 years old and grows just off the road in a forested grove.
The legend that accompanies the Sacred Oak begins with a powerful Lenape chief whose wife became gravely ill. The tribes’ wisest healers and medicine men administered herbal medicines, but to no avail. The woman’s condition worsened. In desperation, the distressed chief traveled to the Sacred Oak. There, he prayed to the Great Spirit that his wife be saved and, upon his return to camp, found that she was in good health.
Years later, this same chief feared attack by a hostile tribe. Once again, he traveled to the oak and offered up prayer. Heeding the guidance of the Great Spirit, the chief gathered blankets and beads of the finest quality and journeyed to the camp of the enemy. His offerings were accepted, and war was averted. He smoked the pipe of peace with the tribe’s chief before returning to his own tribe’s camp. It was from this point on that this Chinkapin oak was looked upon as the shrine tree of the Lenape Indians. It is believed to cure illnesses and relieve troubles, and according to the legend, something dreadful will befall any person who mars the tree. The Sacred Oak is still frequently visited today and likely continues to inspire awe in its beholders.
In the Pacific Northwest, the western redcedar offered the Northwest Coast Indians an untold number of material goods and services, as well as spiritual and health benefits. In the mid-Atlantic, the Sacred Oak spared the Lenape Indians the grief of death and the hardship of war. And during this time, diverse species of trees were similarly revered by other Native American tribes across the country. In keeping with the traditions of our country’s native inhabitants, this Thanksgiving season, we recognize and thank trees for their positive contributions to climate, biodiversity, air and water quality, medicine and health, social environments and recreation. As we know, trees today are no less sacred than they were centuries ago.