When Trees Tell Stories

Tree trunk with "Culturally Modified Tree" ribbon around it.
Posted: May 17, 2018 at 11:29 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Sheena Robinson
Photo top: seawolfadventures.ca

Walking through the forests of Vancouver Island, it’s easy to become entranced by the density and beauty of the tall trees towering above you. Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar are the most common coniferous giants here. They are a big part of what makes this island so captivating, to residents and visitors alike.

Worker looking up at huge CMT

Inspecting a Culturally Modified Tree

Many of our forests have been slashed by clear-cuts, however, as timber is a highly sought-after resource on the Island. Even most old growth forests have been logged now, as is the case all over the world. Fortunately, some trees and forested areas in BC remain protected, and for a reason you may not know.

The Heritage Conservation Act (HCA) protects all archaeological sites in BC, on both private and public land. Trees that have been utilized by First Nations, from a thousand years ago to the present, are called culturally modified trees, or CMTs. Under the Act, the areas around them, to a perimeter of 20 metres,  are considered archaeological sites. The trees will often have old tool marks or scars where bark was stripped away. They may be alive or dead standing, or may be rotting stumps or logs. If you don’t know what to look for, CMT features can be hard to spot.

Which is where experts like Kevin Robinson come in. Robinson is an archaeologist with over 40 years of experience helping forestry companies to identify CMTs in areas that are scheduled to be logged. It’s work that preserves not only the trees, but the stories they tell.

“You can see that these trees and stumps were cut before pioneers were using saws, before there were roads and clear-cuts,” he says. “You’ll see a tool mark that indicates that somebody chopped away at the side of this cedar tree with a hatchet and then peeled away some bark – they were harvesting bark out here on the hillside.”

Carvers making canoes from a tree

Carving canoes from a cedar tree

The trees he identifies point to an enduring culture. Vancouver Island is home to 50 First Nations, many of whom continue to harvest the woods around them. The Western Red Cedar in particular is used to make clothing, hats, jewellery, blankets, shelter, canoes, totem poles, and more. The land is an intrinsic part of First Nations traditions, culture, and subsistence, and CMTs are historical and cultural evidence of that relationship.

Robinson, who is my uncle, has worked on many First Nations territories on Vancouver Island and the BC coast throughout the years. Besides picking out CMTs, he analyzes the terrain for hints of what used to be there. Sometimes he finds evidence of a campsite where trees were chopped down and clams cooked over a fire, for example. But while his specialty requires a keen eye for what others might miss, he never works alone. “For diplomatic and political reasons, I would invariably work with representatives of the First Nations who had contacted me, sometimes with representatives from more than one nation, if their territory was overlapping.”

Rita Johnson, the Lands and Permitting Administrator of the Huu-ay-aht Nation, worked with Robinson for many years and agrees on the importance of CMTs. “It correlates with our oral history,” she says. “It gives you proof that we were there. It was a cultural, daily or weekly activity for us.”

The Huu-ay-aht Nation, located on Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, has its own forestry company. Surveying the land for CMTs is required before logging, so they send out archaeological field crews on a regular basis. “We still do a lot of work in the forest,” says Johnson. “It’s important to conduct surveys properly and record the evidence.”

Robinson teaching a group of students from the archaeological survey course

Robinson teaching a group of students from the archaeological survey course

Robinson has been to a number of First Nations territories to train field technicians to accompany the archaeologists. They learn how to identify, document, and report archaeological sites. He first taught the week-long course, originally meant to re-employ displaced forestry workers, in the early ’90s.

“I was contacted by the David Suzuki Foundation to deliver it to First Nations people,” Robinson says. “They were equipping them with the knowledge to manage their own archaeological resources. The First Nations obviously already knew the cultural significance behind the trees, but to be able to record and register them was empowering. They could use these sites in a way that was powerful legal evidence to resist industrialization and other kinds of marginalization. They could demonstrate a measurable presence on the land.”

Robinson felt slightly daunted when he taught his first course in Hartley Bay. Explaining to his new class what a CMT might look like, he thought his students were bored because they kept looking past him. Finally, one of them pointed to some prominent CMTs nearby, about six metres high, thought to be marking a burial site. Robinson hadn’t even noticed them.

“I definitely felt the irony of being this white city guy teaching this First Nation a course about their own territory, where they’d lived for thousands of years,” he laughs. “But they made me feel welcome, and even started greeting me as a long-lost cousin because the name Robinson is common up there.”

A fresh CMT in Coast Salish territory.

A fresh CMT in Coast Salish territory.

A big part of what Robinson does is for environmental reasons, as well as diplomatic ones. He recalls a memorable experience working with the Quatsino people at Kains Peninsula on the remote northwest part of Vancouver Island, where they found hundreds of stunning CMTs, including one group of huge standing cedars, two metres in diameter, with planks wedged in them.

“They were like standing, living monuments to the industry of these people. It was just fascinating to see them in this setting – it was primeval. It hadn’t been trashed by the later forms of mechanized logging.”

The area had been slated for road building and clear-cutting. Robinson helped determine that the trees were unique and worth saving. The Quatsino Nation decided to protect them and shut down the whole project, by recording the forest as an important historical and cultural site.

“Protecting one site from being developed is maybe one small drop in the bucket, but it feels good to know the logging companies will have to leave it intact.”

Robinson believes that equipping First Nations people with greater knowledge of CMTs and the forestry industry has led to other forms of empowerment as well. “It’s related to why tanker traffic is now blocked on the BC coast, and it has something to do with why pipelines have been cancelled. In general, it’s now perceived that First Nations communities in BC, particularly those in alliance, are much more powerful now than in the past, and may be the ultimate controlling voice in these important decisions.”

The protected sites seem to offer a balance between the inevitability and necessity of having a forest industry, and preserving the traditional lands of the First Nations, who were here for thousands of years before BC was settled. CMTs tell the stories of First Nations peoples’ relationship to the land, and are reminders of how special their history is.

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