A crowd of 20 stand in rapt silence, listening intently to Tony Christianson express appreciation to the cedar tree that rises before us. Christianson, the mayor of Hydaburg and the leader of the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, digs his knife into thick bark and begins to slice.
This group of attentive students watching Christianson harvest cedar bark for cultural use is an unusual crew. Staff from the tribal governments of the Hydaburg Cooperative Association and the Organized Village of Kasaan brush shoulders with United States Forest Service timber cruisers and silviculturists. Local weavers, carvers and youth gather with representatives from Sealaska and the Sitka Conservation Society. All are participating in a two day workshop titled ‘Cultural Uses of Forest Resources’ — hosted by Kassan and Hydaburg’s tribal governments on Prince of Wales Island.
“You gotta be careful doing this stuff too, you need a pretty good hand because we have guys literally lose their hands doing this — slice them right open,” Christianson warns as he saws down to the sapwood of the tree. “They say ‘Oh well, I’m just getting cedar bark,’ but you’re pushing with all your muscle on a tree that wants to fight back.”
For many of the participants, this is their first time experiencing a cedar bark harvest. For others, this practice is an annual activity anchored to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian traditions that stretch back more than 10,000 years.
“I learned this skill first from Dolores Churchill,” says Christianson. Churchill is a world-renowned Haida weaver who has taught countless students how to identify suitable trees for bark harvesting.
This particular tree rises beside a steep incline to a small river. Inclines can be used for leverage when pulling park. The diameter and age of the tree (not too big, not too little), the quality of the external bark, the time of year and assessment of the sun’s impact on the tree’s sap, where the branches are located, and more, are all taken into consideration when selecting a tree.
Funded by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership partners the Sitka Conservation Society and Sealaska, organizers developed this two day workshop that included presentations, weaving activities, dialogues, and field trips as a shared learning opportunity between people with a deep cultural reverence for cedar trees and the foresters and land managers whose decisions directly impact the future of this ancient resource.
Christianson licks his lips, pulls up his sleeves and adjusts his stance with an enormous grin. It’s time to pull. With the audience’s eyes glued to his every movement, Christianson yanks firmly. The bark begins to lift, revealing the impossibly smooth yellow trunk beneath. The bark tapers as he leans, culminating in a single point and leaving a characteristic triangular shape in the cedar.
“As a rule of thumb, we typically aim to harvest a slice that is around 30% the diameter of the tree,” says Christianson explaining responsible bark harvesting that preserves the life of the tree.
Forest Service participants fire off questions and reference the provided handout that describes attributes of cultural trees. Christianson slices off the tough flaky outer bark. Michael Chilton with the Organized Village of Kasaan films the harvest. He is splicing together an informational video on cultural use of forest resources that will be integrated into USFS agency training.
Marina Anderson, the tribal administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan who helped initiate this workshop, lifts a scrap of fresh bark from the forest floor and begins to fold the cedar between her fingers.“A small piece like this strip could be woven into earrings that could be sold for around sixty dollars,” says Anderson. She stresses the economic significance of cedar for local artisans while folding the strip into a tiny rose. She offers it to Forest Service employee Michael Melendrez who is watching intently. The two went to high school together in Craig many years ago.
Christianson and Anderson carefully coil the cedar and secure it with a smaller piece of wood.
“I’ll be bringing this to my mother,” says Christianson whose mother led a weaving session the day prior for workshop attendees. He describes the different steps of processing that follow the initial gathering including a year of drying.
Waiting one year for cedar bark to dry seems like a short amount of time when considering what this workshop is trying to do — address a century-long struggle between the Indigenous peoples in Southeast Alaska and a land management agency that was not originally created to appreciate the broad value that these forest resources have for the original inhabitants of this land.
For the past century, the focus of the USFS on the Tongass has been providing commercial timber, first to small-scale mom and pop operations, then for 50-year contracts for the region’s two pulp mills and most recently, to timber companies like Viking and Alcan which have business models that rely heavily on the harvest and export of high-value trees like red cedar.
In Christianson’s view, the export business model hasn’t helped his community in the long term, and participants throughout the workshop emphasize the value of keeping old-growth trees in-region to satiate growing economic, cultural and spiritual needs.
The value of raising totem poles, attending dugout canoe journeys, hosting community carving projects, creating artwork, building businesses using local resources and honoring a cultural legacy are profound and difficult to quantify or describe. For this reason, the Organized Village of Kasaan and Hydaburg Cooperative Association are hosting this workshop in part, to offer hands-on experiential learning for agency staff who are invited to weave their own projects and carry on immersive dialogue with local artisans.
Melendrez proudly wears the cedar headband he wove on the first day of the workshop under his hardhat as he follows Christianson and Anderson out of the forest. With more hands-on training and strengthened relationships with local tribal council members and artisans, tribal governments hope the USFS will learn how to distinguish canoe and totem pole quality trees, identify where these trees are located on the landscape and conserve them to help meet the cultural tree and plant needs of the Haida and Tlingit people.
It’s easy to look at the Tongass and see the forest; trees are everywhere. However, the trees needed for totems and canoes —referred to as ‘monument trees’ by some — are specific, and rare.
The next stop on the field trip is to a lumber yard where participants discuss the unique qualities of monument trees. These trees need to be around 450 years old; have tight grain and small growth rings; stand tall and straight; and need to be relatively free of defects or too many branches. The trees currently being used for totem poles and canoes have been growing since before the Declaration of Independence was written.
While comparing logs, Kasaan carver Stormy Hamar lists all the threats a tree must survive to be suitable for a totem or canoe. It must survive the hungry mouths of deer which love to munch on cedar seedlings. It must survive the harsh conditions of Southeast winters and not be broken by snow, or uprooted by wind. It has to outcompete the trees next to it to grow the tallest and get the most light. It has to avoid being cut down by loggers — no small feat, when cedar is the most highly prized timber species from the Tongass. It has to avoid root freeze from the impacts of climate change, a phenomenon causing massive yellow cedar die off. And then, it has to be found by people who want to use it and be removed safely and economically from its location. With all these challenges, it can seem amazing that we see as many totem poles and canoes as we do around Southeast.
Continuity is Key
The group spends several hours walking through different sections of the forest looking for monument trees. We identify a tree that would suffice for a thin monument pole and another for a totem before visiting the Klawock carving shed to regroup, speak with Klawock carver John Rowan and discuss next steps.
“We’ve been talking about these certain canoe logs and totem pole logs that are 450 years old, so, it’s going to take us a while to grow new ones,” says Stormy Hamar. “How many hours did we just spend with the crew out looking around, and Christianson’s been fishing and looking at the hillsides, I’ve been walking around and looking through the woods— and we haven’t found, for us, any really, nice, big, 450 year old trees. They are super rare.”
The rarity of these trees has impacts for future generations to continue the practice.
“My point is, I think we are really at a critical place where if we don’t do it right, right now, there is going to be a long period in the future where people don’t have the opportunity to make things like canoes or totem poles, and I’m not sure how those people will solve that problem, and I’m not sure how they are going to feel about us if we don’t get it right,” adds Hamar.
Many workshop participants emphasize the importance of carving, weaving and hands-on cultural experiences for youth. Without careful stewardship of the resources, these practices become endangered.
The tribes have been pushing for conservation of the cedar resource for cultural use purposes for years, but the Forest Service staff have only recently started focusing on the topic.
Adelaide Johnson is a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. She started carving in 2018, taking a class from famed carver and culture bearer Wayne Price. Price enlightened her to the struggles that tribes and artisans face with obtaining quality cedar trees.
Johnson’s hands-on experience with carving during Price’s class led her to start a research project that investigates the cultural importance of red cedar, and the environmental and political factors that affect the future of the resource.
This research project resulted in the publication of a paper titled “Wood Products for Cultural Uses: Sustaining Native Resilience and Vital Lifeways in Southeast Alaska” that was co-authored by Johnson and carvers, weavers, tribal staff, college students and conservationists. Youth across the region conducted interviews with over 50 traditional artists and culture bearers about the cultural importance of trees, and management ideas that protect Indigenous communities’ needs for access and increasing supply. Offering more hands-on, experiential learning exchanges was one suggestion that helped inspire this workshop.
For Johnson, incorporating the youth into the research project was essential, because they are the next stewards of the resource. Having young people discuss the issues around red and yellow cedar access and supply with their elders is critical to create connection and understanding between generations.
This emphasis on youth engagement was shared by workshop panelists. John Rowan wrapped up the field day in the carving shed by telling participants how he teaches carving, beading, oral history and language at the local school all day. Then he goes home to grab a bite to eat, before heading to the carving shed to finish out the evening there.
“Continuity is the key. You have to have that,” says Rowan, who has worked with some of the grandkids of students he’s taught in the past.
Transitioning from a ‘First Date’ to an Enduring Relationship
Organized Village of Kasaan tribal administrator Marina Anderson is cautiously optimistic. She describes this workshop between the tribes and the Forest Service as “the first date”. While showing up is one thing, taking action to address the concerns that have been shared is another.
Four tribes authored a letter to the Forest Service and the Secretary of Agriculture demanding an inventory of the resource, and a long-term management plan for cultural use trees in March 2020. While they wait for an answer from Washington, D.C., tribal governments like Kasaan and Hydaburg’s are working to find solutions on the ground.
“Healthy relationships between sovereign Tribal governments and the USFS in my opinion would look like any other healthy relationship. Whether the relationship is a romantic relationship or a government-to-government relationship, the relationship needs to be rooted in trust,” says Anderson.
The Organized Village of Kasaan and the USFS meet weekly to nourish this relationship and identify points of collaboration to take action around.
“This past meeting, I was moved by the workshop feedback we received from the USFS. One cruiser described how his staff are showing their excitement for the knowledge sharing by utilizing it continuously. That is a positive movement, that is what this workshop is about and what our ongoing efforts are intending to cultivate more of,” says Anderson.
“But it’s not just with the Forest Service though,” she stresses. “Efforts of groups like the Sustainable Southeast Partnership have helped to make the introductions and build trust and the relationships we are now putting to work. Elders, artisans, native corporations, conservation organizations, researchers, youth, culture bearers, entrepreneurs and more are all needed at the table to identify synergies and build a vision for what comprehensive management that incorporates modern science and traditional ecological knowledge can look like.”
That night, Anderson pulls out a tote of cedar bark and starts weaving tiny flowers, bracelets, and more as gifts to honor relationships she made during the workshop. For Anderson and so many other Indigenous people in Southeast Alaska, cedar stewardship is about far more than just a walk through the woods, a handout, or a day job.
“Cedar is the warp in the basket of who we are as a people. We weave our way around the cedar, keeping ourselves connected, strong and able to carry the tools and resources forward for the next generation,” explains Anderson.
Want to see more?
The US Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Lab published an immersive Story Map online to share photographs and research from the article titled “Wood Products for Cultural Uses: Sustaining Native Resilience and Vital Lifeways in Southeast Alaska, USA. You can learn more at https://bit.ly/tongass-story-map.
• Produced by Katie Riley, Sitka Conservation Society with Marina Anderson, Organized Village of Kasaan. Both Riley and Anderson contributed to the 2021 ‘Cultural Uses of Forest Resources’ workshop on Prince of Wales Island. Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a diverse network of tribal governments, organizations, businesses and individuals working together to reach cultural, ecological, and economic prosperity for Southeast Alaska. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples and Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.