Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Culturally modified trees point to history, culture and technology of Heiltsuk First Nation

By Cheryl Chan, The Province

To the uninformed eye, they look like regular trees.

But some of the centuries-old trees in the B. C. central coast’s old-growth rain forests are living testaments to the culture and heritage of the Heiltsuk First Nation prior to European contact.

These culturally modified trees (CMTs) have been altered by First Nation activity, such as bark-peeling, logging, or carvings.

“They used to be curiosities, but now they are everywhere, particularly as logging becomes more common,” said Jennifer Carpenter, cultural and heritage manager for the Heiltsuk Nation. “If you see a CMT, you know the ancestors were there.”

Now the Heiltsuk and forest company Interfor are teaming up in a unique project to catalogue, track and manage CMTs in the Heiltsuks’ traditional lands — a 6,000-square-mile territory that includes much of the Great Bear Rainforest — using spatial analysis and geographic information systems.

“There’s a lot to be learned from knowing where CMTs can be found in our territory,” Carpenter said in a phone interview from Bella Bella.

These historical artifacts help identify where settlements were, and shed light on First Nations culture and knowledge, especially woodworking technique and practices.

Previous studies have also shown that First Nations used the trees strategically and sustainably, said Carpenter.

In one study with Interfor, the Heiltsuk found that culturally-modified trees logged at higher elevations were associated with canoe manufacturing. The Heiltsuks’ ancestors logged those trees to build canoes because the wood grain in them was much tighter than in trees on lower slopes, explained Carpenter.

“People weren’t just going into the bush. They knew where they should go to get what they wanted.

“They were practicing forest management.”

Culturally-modified trees can be altered in various ways, including bark-stripping, planking, notching or logging, and bear distinct scars from those practices. Other, much rarer CMTs bear glyphs or carvings.

Cedars, which offer a versatile wood whose bark can be used for clothes, baskets, mats, and even diapers, are the most common altered trees, said Carpenter.

But balsam and yew were also used. Yew, a harder wood, was preferred for tools such as bows and arrows and halibut hooks.

There are no exact figures, but Carpenter estimates there are thousands of CMTs within the traditional Heiltsuk territory. Archeological findings indicate the Heiltsuk-speaking people have inhabited the area for at least 9,000 years.

Carpenter said there are many more culturally modified trees across B.C., adding she would like to see the project duplicated in other regions.

The two-year project was funded by a $66,000 grant from Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a non-profit group that promotes sustainable forest management in North America.

In the first year, the project will focus on gathering existing information on CMTs, their locations and features into a new database. In the second year, the project will conduct field work to find new CMTs and test out existing predictive models.

The project will also benefit forest companies and help them practice sustainable logging. Trees altered before 1846 are protected under the Heritage Conservation Act and cannot be logged without a permit.

“We recognize the unique ties that the Heiltsuk have to their lands and this project will help us to better identify, respect and manage this unique heritage resource,” Rhiannon Poupard, manager of First Nations and Forestry Partnerships for Interfor, saidin a statement.

“The database will help us fill in any gaps, and through spatial analysis in GIS we can produce maps and reports that improve our forest management.”

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