Cedar is a well-known symbol of the Northwest Coast. For thousands of years, coastal First Nations in British Columbia have the versatile wood in many aspects of their lives.1 Not only is cedar a key natural resource in the production of material goods, the tree also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs and ceremonial life of coastal First Nations. This section will explain how cedar is harvested, used, and perceived by coastal First Nations from an ethnobotany perspective.2
Biology of cedar
There are two native species of cedar trees that grow in the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia: Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar. Yellow Cedar usually stands between 20 to 40 metres tall, and it is distinguished from Red Cedar by its smaller size and bushier growth. Yellow Cedar typically grows at subalpine elevations in damp coastal forests ranging from Vancouver Island to Alaska, but is rarely found in inland regions. Unlike Yellow Cedar, Red Cedar is common both on the coast and in moist slopes and valleys of the Interior. As a result, some Interior Salish groups also harvested Red Cedar, but not to the extent of the coastal peoples.3
Red Cedar can grow up to 70 metres tall and live up to 1,000 years old. With its lightweight and rot-resistant wood, Red Cedar is the most versatile and most widely-used plant among coastal First Nations.4 Yellow Cedar bark is softer and more pliable than Red Cedar, so the former is frequently used to make clothing and other fibrous materials, while the latter is used more commonly for architecture and transportation, such as house poles and canoes.5 If you are interested in learning more about the biology of cedar and how to identify them, please refer to the Tree Book published by the B.C. Ministry of Forests.
Coast Salish peoples have a creation story that explains the origins of Cedar. According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people.6 The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.7
Both types of cedar are harvested by coastal First Nations to create a variety of implements for daily use and ceremonial purposes.8 Almost every part of a cedar tree can be used, including the roots, the bark, the wood, and the withes (the smaller, more pliable sub-branches of a tree).
While the process of harvesting cedar will inevitably cause some damage to the tree, harvesters use methods that ensure the survival of the tree as a species. It is traditional practice that before a tree is cut down, the woodcutters will say a prayer and express their gratitude to the tree’s spirit. Traditionally, men were responsible for cutting down a tree, which is a time-consuming and laborious process that involves chiselling and heating the tree with red-hot stones to weaken the wood. They would make use of various woodworking tools, which historically included stone adzes and bone drills. The harvesting of cedar bark was typically performed by women. Harvesting cedar bark requires careful skill and knowledge, or otherwise, the tree could be killed from infestation or stunted growth. A harvester would choose a straight, young tree and de-bark only portions of the tree to ensure its survival.9 As a result, thousands of these harvested trees, with distinctive scar marks, can be found in old-growth forests and some commercial clear-cut forests. These trees, referred to as Culturally Modified Trees (CMT), are considered important heritage sites by archaeologists. Under the Heritage Conservation Act (1996) in B.C., a forest utilization site containing a CMT created prior to 1846 is protected by law.10 Today, Aboriginal peoples continue to create new CMTs as part of their cultural and economic activities and still utilize environmentally sustainable methods passed down from their ancestors.11
Uses of cedar
The astounding variety of objects that can be created from a single tree is a testament to a profound cultural interrelationship between humans and plants. The importance of cedar is reflected in tools and everyday objects, but also in ceremonial objects and regalia. This section will explain some common uses and well-known objects created from cedar. However, each culture has developed its own techniques and uses for cedar, and it is important to keep in mind that we provide only a general overview, and this section does not reflect all the complexities and variations that are found among different First Nations.
Starting with the base of the tree, cedar roots can be dried and braided to form cordage for hats and baskets. The Coast Salish used cedar root to create a unique type of coil basketry.12 With the right technique, a cedar basket can be made watertight and heatproof. As a result, cedar baskets are used as “pots and pans” for cooking and boiling water. Water is heated in baskets using hot rocks, and once it comes to a boil, foodstuffs can be added.
The withes of a cedar tree are strong, lightweight, and naturally grow in long strands, making them a suitable choice for ropes and lashing. The Kwakwaka'wakw of northern Vancouver Island made three-ply rope for whaling from young Red Cedar. Because of their strength, cedar withes are also used as lashing to make wood and stone weapons, as well as burden baskets for carrying heavy objects. As coastal First Nations did not traditionally use metal nails and bolts, withes were used to lash together roof planks and setting baseboards, a vital part of house construction.13
The most versatile part of the cedar is the bark. Bark could be dyed and processed into different types of thread for mats, clothing, blankets, and hats. Kwakwaka'wakw warriors wore protective armour made from bark rope during battle. Like roots and withes, bark is also made into ropes, baskets, and fishing nets. The inner bark of the Yellow Cedar was valued for its softness and absorbability, so women used them for baby diapers and bedding, sanitary napkins, and towels. Expecting mothers gave birth in a pit lined with Yellow Cedar bark to receive the infant. Furthermore, dried bark burned slowly, providing excellent tinder for matches and torches.
Cedar wood is strong, lightweight, and straight-grained, so it is easy to split and carve, and made into totem poles, masks, and longhouses. Coastal First Nations, who depended on fish as the main staple of their diet, developed a wide array of fishing gear from cedar, including canoes, paddles, hooks, spears, and fishing floats. Once caught, fish were preserved in cedar smokehouses or dried on cedar racks. Food can be stored or served in bentwood boxes, which are made from a single cedar plank bent using steam to form four sides. Bentwood boxes, especially those decorated with paint or carvings, were once a valuable trade item along the Northwest Coast. Bentwood boxes could be used to hold all sorts of goods, and they also served as burial boxes for the deceased.14
Longhouses formed the central dwelling unit of each village, with large extended families living together under the same roof. Cedar poles formed the foundations of the house, followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with cedar roof planks. Carved house frontal poles would occasionally be positioned at the entrance, particularly amongst the Haida and Tlingit. These poles typically depict the crests and lineage of a family, as well as the hereditary rights and ancestors of the owners. Many First Nations decorated house posts, mortuary poles, and memorial poles with intricate carvings of stylized human figures and animals.
In addition to everyday use, cedar is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Families often commissioned a carver to create cedar figures for a potlatch, usually as a welcoming gesture to the guests. Ceremonial dancers’ regalia might include head rings, neck rings, wristlets braided from cedar, as well as cedar masks.
Cedar and spirituality
Given the importance of cedar in everyday life, it is clear that cedar also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs of coastal First Nations. These beliefs recognize that the cedar tree has its own life and spirit. Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.15
Cedar was also widely valued for its healing abilities. Yellow Cedar bark, which has anti-inflammatory properties, was frequently applied as a dressing for wounds, as a tourniquet, or to ward off evil. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other cedar trees. Similarly, some believe a pregnant woman should not braid baskets, lest the umbilical cord would twist around the baby’s neck. As the cedar is a long-lived tree, some Coast Salish groups ensured a long life for their infants by placing the afterbirth in the stump of a large cedar.16
As a plant that has ensured the survival of people for thousands of years, cedar has become a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The deep respect for cedar is a rich tradition that spans thousands of years and continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important.
By Alice Huang
“Bill Reid” - National Film Board of Canada.
“Importance of Cedar” - SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Images and online exhibits
“Cedar: A Journey into Time Memorial” SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
“Thunderbird Park” Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C.
Books & Articles
McMillan, Alan D., and Eldon Yellowhorn. First Peoples in Canada. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Nelson, John David. A Vanishing Heritage: The Loss of Red Cedar from Canada’s Forests. Vancouver: Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 2004.
Stewart, Hilary. Cedar. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre: 1984.
Stryd, Arnoud H., and Vicki Feddema. “Sacred Cedar: The Cultural and Archaeological Significance of Cultural Modified Trees.” Report of the Pacific Salmon Forests Project. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation, 1998.
Turner, Nancy J. Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press,1998.
1 Arnoud H. Stryd, and Vicki Feddema, “Sacred Cedar: The Cultural and Archaeological Significance of Cultural Modified Trees,” Report of the Pacific Salmon Forests Project (Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation, 1998), 6.pdf printable version
2 Ethnobotany is a sub-discipline of anthropology that studies the relationship between people and plants
3 Nancy J. Turner, Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998), 71.
5 Turner, 68.
6 Hilary Stewart, Cedar (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre: 1984), 27.
7 Stewart, 27.
8 Arnoud H. Stryd, and Vicki Feddema, “Sacred Cedar: The Cultural and Archaeological Significance of Cultural Modified Trees,” 6.
9 Stewart 114.
10 Styd and Feddema, 12.
12 Stewart, 174.
13 Stewart, 165.
14 Stewart, 87.
15 Stewart, 84.
16 Stewart, 180.